Updated on August 14: This article has been updated to reflect more recent comments made by USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, caused a stir Tuesday morning by misquoting “The New Colossus,” the poem that famously occupies the base of the Statue of Liberty, while appearing on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
That 1883 poem, the best-known work of the poet Emma Lazarus, is often cited as an aspirational statement of America’s attitude toward immigrants, particularly because of its most famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
But when host Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli if those lines still mattered in the wake of the Trump administration’s announcement of a new rule that would substantially curb legal immigration, Cuccinelli offered a different interpretation.
“Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words, etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor,’ are also part of the American ethos?” Martin asked.
“They certainly are,” Cuccinelli said. “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
“That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law,” Cuccinelli added. “Very interesting timing.”
Cuccinelli’s alterations to Lazarus’s fervently pro-immigrant poem sparked an immediate backlash. He had joined “Morning Edition” to discuss a rule that would restrict the ability of immigrants deemed likely to use welfare benefits to become permanent residents, a change that immigration advocates claim will disproportionately affect women, children and the elderly, among other economically disadvantaged migrants. But Cuccinelli’s act of literary revisionism was what drove attention, rather than the details of the new rule. “Cuccinelli torches famous Statue of Liberty immigrant quote,” read one headline from NBC News. Another, from CNN, declared “Cuccinelli rewrites Statue of Liberty poem to make case for limiting immigration.”
Lazarus’s poem, which was added as a plaque to the Statue of Liberty in 1903, has in recent years been a point of contention for officials from the Trump administration. In 2017, while responding to press questions about President Trump’s immigration policy, the president’s senior advisor Stephen Miller mentioned that Lazarus’s poem “was added later… [it’s] not actually a part of the Statue of Liberty.” That observation, lightly echoed by Cuccinelli in his statement about the timing of the poem’s placement on the statue, was criticized for echoing a popular talking point for white nationalists. As ThinkProgress’s Rebekah Entralgo noted at the time, former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard David Duke has written extensively about what he perceived as Lazarus’s desire “to turn America into a refuge for the castoffs of the world.”
President Trump himself did not disavow Cuccinelli’s editing of the poem; Reuters White House Correspondent Jeff Mason tweeted that in response to a question about the poem, Trump said “It’s not fair for the American taxpayer to pay for immigrants to come into the United States.”
I asked the president about the Statue of Liberty poem. He said: it’s not fair for the American taxpayer to pay for immigrants to come into the United States pic.twitter.com/hAjDCZXcvL— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) August 13, 2019
On Tuesday night, in response to the uproar, Cuccinelli elaborated on his interpretation of Lazarus’s poem for CNN. “I was answering a question. I wasn’t writing poetry,” he said, speaking with reporter Erin Burnett. “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, and it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written,” he said subsequently.
“The New Colossus” does not specify any particular groups of migrants to whom it applies. But in 1882, the year before Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus,” Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely tightened already-stringent restrictions on immigration from China. And in 1907, four years after the poem was installed as a plaque on the Statue of Liberty, a so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan made it even more difficult for immigrants from Asia to reach American shores. The poem’s message may have practically applied primarily to European immigrants; the context in which it did so was shaped by significant resistance, on the part of the American government, to considering others. That resistance has been condemned by more recent iterations of the government. In 2012, the House of Representatives approved a resolution formally apologizing for the Chinese Exclusion Act, as well as other “legislation that adversely affected people of Chinese origin in the United States because of their ethnicity.”
The public charge rule to which Cuccinelli referred was included in the Immigration Act of 1882, signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur three months after the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Cuccinelli first faced questions about “The New Colossus” on Monday while announcing the rule to the White House Press Corps, when a reporter asked “is [Lazarus’s] sentiment — ‘Give us your tired, your poor’ — still operative in the United States, or should those words come down?”
“I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off of the Statue of Liberty,” Cuccinelli said.