Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Tuesday that the poem etched on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America should include a line qualifying that they be able to “stand on their own two feet.”
Cuccinelli made the comments while defending the Trump administration’s announcement Monday that the government would consider an immigrant’s use of social safety net programs, like Medicaid or food stamps, when deciding their permanent legal status.
The famous words on the pedestal of the State of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” were written by Emma Lazarus in 1883. In recent years, it’s taken on new meaning as a rallying cry against President Trump’s immigration policies.
Cuccinelli, during an interview with NPR, argued it’s the “American tradition” that immigrants welcomed into the country be those who are “self-sufficient, can pull themselves up from their bootstraps.”
“Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?” NPR’s Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli.
“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,’ ” Cuccinelli said. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed — very interesting timing.”
The public charge rule that Cuccinelli is referring to takes into account an immigrant’s current or possible future reliance on the government when reviewing applications for permanent status. In its current form, officials take into account whether immigrants rely on the government for more than half of their income.
Later Tuesday, in an interview on CNN, Cuccinelli was asked to clarify his remarks. He said he “wasn’t writing poetry” and accused anchor Erin Burnett of “twisting this like everybody else on the left has done all day today.”
“Wretched, poor refuse. Right?” Burnett said, referring to Lazarus’s poem. “That’s what the poem says America’s supposed to stand for. So, what do you think America stands for?”
Cuccinelli responded by pointing to the historical context of the poem.
“Well, 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,” he said, adding that the poem was penned one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.
The new Trump administration rule is “not an exclusionary, end-all, be-all,” he said. “It’s one factor.”
Since the early days of the Trump administration, officials have been working on broadening that law to include an immigrant’s use of other public benefit services, such as subsidies for health care, food and housing, as reason to reject an immigrant’s application for a green card.
On Monday, it made the regulation official, and it’s set to go into effect Oct. 15.