Trump's acting immigration chief just rewrote the Statue of Liberty poem

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge"

By Matthew Rozsa

Published August 13, 2019 6:21PM (EDT)

Ken Cuccinelli (AP/Molly Riley)
Ken Cuccinelli (AP/Molly Riley)

Ken Cuccinelli, President Donald Trump's acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, insisted on Tuesday that the famous Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty should be revised to restrict America's immigration policies.

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," Cuccinelli told NPR's Rachel Martin in defense of the administration's policy making it more difficult for legal immigrants with low incomes to stay in the U.S.

"We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege," he continued. "Not everyone has the right to be an American."

Cuccinelli also claimed that "all immigrants who can stand on their own two feet" and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" are invited to this country.

Trump seemed to agree with Cuccinelli's revisions when asked about it on Tuesday, telling reporters that "I don't think it's fair to have the American taxpayer pay for people to come into the United States. I am tired of seeing our taxpayers 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."

The famous Emma Lazarus poem, "The New Colossus," is excerpted on a plaque held by the Statue of Liberty near Ellis Island. Lazarus came from a large Jewish family that had deep roots in the U.S., with many of her ancestors fleeing anti-Semitic persecution in Portugal and settling in New York City before the American Revolution. In full, her iconic poem reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Cuccinelli's comments echoed thoughts he expressed at a press conference Monday about the new policy. He told reporters that "I do not think by any means we're ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty" through the new policy, even as added that roughly 400,000 people could find their immigration status jeopardized as they undergo "meaningful analysis of whether they're likely to become a public charge."

"We certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet," Cuccinelli added.

The former Virginia attorney general also told reporters that the new rule will not retroactively count against immigrants who received benefits before it was implemented. Overall, he characterized the policy as fulfillment of a Trump mandate, saying that he "has once again delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce long-standing immigration law."

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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