The Statue of Liberty (via Celso FLORES/Flickr)

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” says a famous line from the Emma Lazarus poem etched into the State of Liberty’s plaque.

“…Who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” added Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, during an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin on Tuesday.

He failed to include the second half of the original passage, which reads, “…The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A day earlier on Monday, the White House announced a new regulation targeting legal immigrants who want to remain in the United States but whose lack of financial resources would likely make them a burden on taxpayers. Starting in mid-October, an aggressive wealth test will determine whether those immigrants have the means to support themselves. Those deemed likely to use government benefit programs like food stamps and subsidized housing will have their applications for green cards denied.

Trump officials are calling this a “public charge rule,” which they say will reinforce “ideals of self-sufficiency,” according to the BBC.

When asked during his NPR interview if the 1883 poem, titled “The New Colossus,” still applied to today’s migrant situation, Cuccinelli agreed but also added that the “plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge [law] was passed. Very interesting timing.” He claimed that public charge rules are a “140-year-old part of our legal immigration system.”

(That’s not exactly true. He was likely referring to the Immigration Act of 1882, which allowed immigration authorities to turn away applicants suspected of being a “convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The Trump rule is different in that it targets immigrants who haven’t committed any legal acts and pose no threat to the public.)

Martin followed up by asking if the new policy would change the definition of the American dream, the Trump official said, “We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege,” adding, “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American.”

In a later interview with CNN, Cuccinelli rejected the idea that he was trying to amend the famous Statue of Liberty poem. He accused people on the left of “twisting” his comments.

When the news outlet’s anchor Erin Burnet asked what America stands for, he responded: “Of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe — where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”

The new public charge rule is reported to be the brainchild of Trump’s advisor, Stephen Miller. A November 2018 report from the nonpartisan think tank called the Migration Policy Institute found that the policy would “disproportionately affect women, children, and the elderly.” The proposal is already being challenged in California, where San Francisco and the county of Santa Clara argue that the rule intimidates thousands of migrants and their families out of critical federally funded programs.

Critics from the left have been quick to denounce the Trump official and the public charge policy he was promoting.

“This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along,” tweeted Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic presidential hopeful from Texas. “They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people.”

The Democratic-led House Homeland Security Committee also condemned Cuccinelli’s revision in a tweet, calling the words “vile and un-American.”

When reached by reporters for comment on Tuesday about Cuccinelli’s remarks, President Donald Trump did not directly respond to the Statue of Liberty poem.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer pay for people to come into the United States,” he said. “I’m tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things.”

“So I think we’re doing it right.”

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

2 replies on “Trump Official Rephrases Statue of Liberty Poem to Defend Targeting of Legal Migrants”

  1. Next he’ll be changing your constitution!
    As George Orwell wrote in 1984:
    “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thought-crime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occured to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

  2. You said it; the new rule “targets immigrants who haven’t committed any legal acts” – yep, the first legal act they should commit and do not is legally being in the USA or following legal channels and procedures to immigrate to the USA. They have not “committed” these legal acts, so they are illegal, aka, they are breaking the laws of the land. One thing is to be a refugee, a real one, the other, to be here illegally. America welcomes refugees and has always welcomed and protected them, as it welcomes legal immigrants, who come here to contribute, rather than milk the welfare cow, etc., and costing taxpayers big dollars, etc.

    You got it right, even if probably that was not your intention. Truth is a funny thing: it has a way of its own, it always pops up.

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