Top Trump Official Edits Statue of Liberty Poem to Justify Rule Punishing Poor Immigrants

“Give me your tired and your poor—who can stand on their own two feet.”

Bruce Cotler/ZUMA

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it was moving forward with a new policy blocking immigrants who are deemed likely to use government assistance programs, such as food stamps and Medicaid, from obtaining a green card. The rule, which resurrects a 19th-century scheme that punished poor immigrants, marks one of the administration’s most severe efforts to restrict legal immigration.

Amid intense backlash over the announcement, acting director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli was asked Tuesday about how the new policy squares with the sentiments expressed in the iconic poem, “The New Colossus,” inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’ 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 on Morning Edition

Cuccinelli, appearing more than prepared to be confronted with the verse, claimed that he did but pointedly revised Lazarus’ words to fit the Trump administration’s hardline immigration views.

“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,'” he quickly responded. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed. Very interesting timing.”

References to public charges, of course, are not included in Lazarus’ poem. But here’s how Cuccinelli’s vision for America would work to slash legal immigration. As my colleague, Noah Lanard reported: 

Immigrants applying for green cards, which provide permanent legal status and a path to citizenship, are already barred from receiving most government assistance. As a result, the new rule would rarely block people from getting green cards because of benefits they’ve already used. The change is dramatic because of how much leeway it gives federal immigration authorities to turn people away: Immigrants will now be punished if officials at US Citizenship and Immigration Services decide they’re likely to use government programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance in the future.

This isn’t the first time that a Trump official has put their spin on Lazarus’ poem. In August 2017, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, perhaps the fiercest proponent of the new public charge rule, got into a heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the meaning of the Statue of Liberty. 

The latest remarks are all but certain to inflame the condemnation pouring in from Democrats, including 2020 candidates, over the new policy. Families shouldn’t be forced to choose between staying in our country and having access to basic health care and housing,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said Monday, adding that she would overturn the rule if she became president. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) assailed it as “indefensible.”

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate