Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) was roundly criticized for comments he made Tuesday on NPR suggesting that the Statue of Liberty’s poem was only meant to welcome immigrants “who can stand on their own two feet.”
Tuesday evening, he doubled down by suggesting the poem only applied to “people coming from Europe, where they had class-based societies.”
CNN host Erin Burnett was grilling Cuccinelli about his earlier remarks, noting that the Emma Lazarus poem The New Colossus, written in 1883 and inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in 1903, specifically describes people who have nothing.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the poem excerpt reads, “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It does not refer to people who can “stand on their own two feet,” as Cuccinelli had said earlier in the day.
Burnett asked Cuccinelli what he believed America stood for. Cuccinelli responded that the poem only referred to class-based societies in Europe, “where people were considered ‘wretched’ if they weren’t in the right class.”
He justified his reinterpretation claiming other laws passed in the early 20th century were similar to the new public charge rule the Trump administration is imposing, which limits legal immigrants from receiving any kind of public assistance.
Burnett noted that under the new rules, her own grandfather would not have been able to come to the United States.
Cuccinelli is not the first Trump official to try to distort The New Colossus in an attempt to justify the administration’s xenophobic immigration policies. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of all of these anti-immigration efforts, tried to downplay the significance of the poem two years ago because the poem was only added later, decades after the statue’s construction had completed.
In August 2017, Miller was defending his proposal to restrict immigration to only those who speak English fluently. CNN’s Jim Acosta asked him whether this comported with Lazarus’ words about how welcoming the country should be. “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty,” Miller responded.
While it’s technically true that the plaque bearing an excerpt of the poem was only added in 1903, the poem was composed in 1883 as part of the original fundraising efforts for the pedestal of the statue. The pedestal was only completed in 1886, following which the statue was assembled and then dedicated that same year.
Many white supremacists, including former KKK grand wizard David Duke and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, have likewise criticized the poem. Duke believes Lazarus was “anxious to turn America into a refuge for the castoffs of the world,” while Spencer once described the inscription as embodying “ugliness, weakness, and deformity.”
By admitting that he believed the invitation to immigrants only applies to Europeans, Cuccinelli was saying the quiet part out loud — that Trump’s immigration policy is designed to institutionalize racism.