Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, reinforced his controversial interpretation of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty ― this time giving it a racist twist.
CNN journalist Erin Burnett was asking Cuccinelli about his earlier interview with NPR, in which he reworded the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus,” saying: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
“‘Wretched,’ ‘poor,’ refuse’ - right? That’s what the poem says America is supposed to stand for. So what do you think America stands for?” Burnett asked Cuccinelli.
“Well, of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” Cuccinelli answered, “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.”
It is unclear why Cuccinelli felt the need to specify the group of immigrants Lazarus was referring to. The poem itself describes the Statue of Liberty by saying, “From her beacon-hand/ Glows world-wide welcome.” USCIS did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Cuccinelli was on NPR defending the Trump administration’s controversial new rule effectively barring legal immigrants who are on government benefits, like food stamps and Medicaid, from becoming permanent residents.
After his remarks on NPR, HuffPost spoke to Annie Polland, a historian and director of the organization that has the original manuscript of Lazarus’ poem.
“To see how something so expressive of the country’s greatest ideals, to see how it could be so contorted or distorted, is really, I think, dismay is the only word,” said Polland, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, adding that she was “not surprised because we’ve been hearing these sentiments more than we have in the past.”
Lazarus originally wrote the poem in 1883 and it was added to the statue in 1903. Since then, the poem has become a symbol of the United States’ history of immigration.
Polland argued that the poem “is as much about who America or what America should be, as it is about immigrants,” adding that “in many ways, America defines itself by how it’s welcoming immigrants.”