When critics of the Trump administration warn that it is transforming America into something dark and ugly, they are often accused of exaggerating. But in a pair of interviews on Tuesday, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, admitted as much.

When asked on NPR whether the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”) are “part of the American ethos,” Cuccinelli replied, “They certainly are — give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Later that day, on CNN, he said, “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.”

That’s two rewrites in one day of a poem that for more than a century has defined the United States as a nation of immigrants, open to all. Not just European immigrants. Not just wealthy immigrants. All immigrants.

Granted, actions have not always matched words. The Immigration Act of 1924 closed our doors to virtually all non-European immigrants — a great wrong that was not rectified for decades. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it easier for Asians, Latin Americans and Africans to come here, changing the demographics of the United States in ways that President Trump and his nativist minions intensely dislike. So many people from “s---hole countries” — not enough from nice, white places such as Norway. Trump is opposed to all non-European immigrants — except, of course, the ones who work for him. So he feels compelled to do something about this “invasion of our Country.”

The administration has separated immigrant children from their parents and held both in squalid cages. It has staged massive roundups of undocumented but otherwise law-abiding immigrants. It has slashed refugee admissions — to a level possibly as low as zero by next year.

The human toll of its inhumane conduct is steep — and growing. Witness the story of Jimmy Aldaoud, an Iraqi refugee born in a camp in Greece, and who was brought the United States legally in 1979 when he was just 6 months old. Suffering from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Aldaoud never became a citizen and compiled a long record of petty crimes. In June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement finally caught up with him. Over his anguished protests, agents deported Aldaoud to Iraq — a country he had never visited and whose language he did not speak. A diabetic, he could not get insulin in Iraq. He died in Baghdad, the New York Times noted, “after vomiting blood and begging to return to the United States.”

While much of the president’s fire and fury is focused on undocumented immigrants, his administration is also targeting legal arrivals. Cuccinelli just unveiled new rules for getting a green card or U.S. citizenship, which penalize those who have taken advantage of the social welfare benefits to which they are entitled. Other disadvantaged categories include those who have a medical condition that interferes with work or school, “financial liabilities,” a lack of English-language skills and even a low credit score. One wonders what kind of credit score Friedrich Trump — the president’s grandfather — had when he arrived from Germany in 1885, a failed barber who did not speak a word of English.

I am certain that my family — my grandmother, mother and myself — had a credit score of zero when we arrived in 1976. There were no credit cards in the Soviet Union, and we didn’t have any money. We survived initially on handouts from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), whose help to more recent arrivals triggered the ire of the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue gunman. Luckily, my mother already spoke English, so she soon found a job. But my grandmother spoke only Russian and she was already retired. She got by with help from my family and her Supplemental Security Income and Medicare benefits. My family is far from rich, but we have been productive and repaid in taxes many times over the benefits my grandmother received — just as we repaid the aid from HIAS.

But if Trump had been in office then, I wonder whether my grandmother would have been barred entry or deported back to the U.S.S.R., where she had no one to take care of her? For that matter, I wonder whether any of us would have been allowed to come here given our unconscionable lack of a credit rating? Why, we didn’t even own a single hotel or casino; still don’t.

I am immensely grateful to be a U.S. citizen, because I am acutely conscious that if I were not, I could suffer Jimmy Aldaoud’s fate — deported to a country (in my case, Russia) that I do not know and where I am not welcome. But while I am proud to be an American, I am ashamed of what the Trump administration is doing in our name. It is literally rewriting the meaning of America.

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