Ken Cuccinelli Rewrites Meaning of Statue of Liberty Poem to Justify Severe Immigration Restrictions

Ken Cuccinelli Rewrites Meaning of Statue of Liberty Poem to Justify Severe Immigration Restrictions

This week the Trump administration unveiled rule changes for evaluating green card holders and others who wish to apply for citizenship in the United States.

Under the new rules, officials can reject anyone who has used or is deemed liable to use any sort of public benefits during their time in America. This will have the effect of rejecting many poorer immigrants who fled their nations because of economic hardship, and will likely also lead to a huge reduction in legal immigration.

Tuesday morning on NPR, acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli defended the law by rewriting the famous Emma Lazarus sonnet written specifically for the statue’s arrival in America and later carved in a plaque on its pedestal. Asked by the interviewer if the famous lines “give me your tired, your poor” were not part of the “American ethos,” Cuccinelli took some, uh, liberties with the poem:

“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.”

Actually, the poem reads:

“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!”

You know what they say: campaign in poetry, govern in prose.

Cuccinelli went on to claim that the plaque with the poem was “put on” the Statue of Liberty around the same time as the first “public charge law” was passed, which is not exactly true. The poem was written in 1883 to raise funds for the construction of the pedestal. The plaque was not installed for another two decades as a memorial to Lazarus, who died in 1887. Before the plaque was installed, the poem had mostly faded from the public’s mind. It was only after the plaque’s installation, combined with the fact that the statue was the first glimpse of America so many immigrants had as they sailed into New York’s harbor, that the poem became indelibly associated with America as a refuge for people seeking better circumstances and relief from persecution.

Members of the Trump administration have been pushing to sever the connection between the poem and the conception of American graciousness towards immigrants that has been written in the popular mind over the past 120 years. Stephen Miller famously derided it two years ago when he claimed, incorrectly, that the poem was not part of the original Statue of Liberty. It was his way of laying the groundwork for justifying a near total halt to even legal immigration.

The “public charge law” Cuccinelli referred to seems to be the Immigration Act of 1882, which had some wording that allowed the government to deny entry to the country for anyone likely to become a public charge. But Congress and the federal government have never defined what constitutes being a public charge until now.

So the administration has come up with a broad definition that has no obvious economic benefit to the nation (immigrants use fewer public resources than natives) and seems designed to have a chilling effect on legal immigration. It will likely do nothing to address the mess that is the process of applying for citizenship or legal status in America.

In other words, it is everything that nativists such as Cuccinelli, Miller and Trump could ask for.

Listen to Cuccinelli’s remarks in the tweet embedded above.



Gary Legum

Gary Legum

Gary Legum has written about politics and culture for Independent Journal Review, Salon, The Daily Beast, Wonkette, AlterNet and McSweeney's, among others. He currently lives in his native state of Virginia.