Acting Director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a briefing at the White House

Donald Trump’s Immigration Chief Rewrites Statue of Liberty Poem, Insisting Its Message Is Meant for European (I.E. White) Immigrants

Saying all the quiet parts loud again.
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Earlier this week, Donald Trump’s administration announced a policy change that would make it much harder for immigrants to obtain a green card if they are seen as “public charges,” meaning they are dependent on the government in some way, like receiving Medicaid or food assistance.

Acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli went on NPR to defend this elitist policy and in the process, decided to rewrite Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem displayed on the Statue of Liberty. Host Rachel Martin asked if those words “give me your tired, your poor—are also part of the American ethos?”

“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 replied, despite the fact that that is definitely not how the poem goes. As Martin says, this new rule “appears to change the definition of the American dream.”

Cuccinelli then appeared on CNN to defend his first terrible attempt at a defense of the rule. He seemed indignant that Erin Burnett wanted to talk about the Lazarus poem, since he “didn’t bring up the poem” in the first place. He patronizingly told her that he would answer her “substantive, intelligent questions” if she would “please ask one.”

And sure, it might have been NPR’s Martin who brought up the poem, but when you give an answer as terrible as Cuccinelli’s, that’s not a subject that’s going to be dropped any time soon.

“Wretched, poor, refuse,” Burnett said. “That’s what the poem says America is supposed to stand for. So what do you think America stands for?”

“Well, of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” Cucinelli answered, “where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”

Implying that the only “wretched, poor, refuse” America was right to take in were European immigrants is such a loud dog whistle that I think my ears are bleeding.

Of course, Cucinelli isn’t the first Trump mouthpiece to try to discredit the message of Lazarus’ “The New Colossus.” Back in 2017, Trump’s senior racism policy advisor Stephen Miller got into an argument with CNN’s Jim Acosta about the poem in relation to the administration’s newly proposed “merit” and skill-based immigration system, which would also require prospective green card holders to speak English.

Acosta referenced the poem and asked if Miller and Trump were “trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country.”

Miller responded, “The poem you are referring to, which was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty,” and while that is correct, it’s also a popular white nationalist talking point and is a deflection from the overall point.

The American immigration system has never lived up to Lazarus’ poem, but it’s still unsettling to hear a modern president and his team trying to rewrite the country’s ethos, and to continuously do so by perpetuating myths about immigrants draining our economic resources. (They don’t, by the way.)

The hashtag #CuccinelliResign has been trending today, although I’m not sure why anyone thinks that’s an actual possibility. Cuccinelli isn’t saying anything that isn’t directly part of Trump’s overarching, racist immigration plan. If anything, this will probably get him a promotion.

(image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.