Top Immigration Official Grilled On Whether Statue Of Liberty Still Matters

A reporter asked Ken Cuccinelli if the sentiments expressed on the statue's plaque are "still operative in the United States."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting Director Ken Cuccinelli faced tough questions during a Monday press briefing ― at one point being asked whether a new immigration regulation will effectively nullify the words on the Statue of Liberty.

The briefing concerned the Trump administration’s upcoming “public charge” regulation, which is expected to add new obstacles to legal immigration. The policy, set to take effect in October, will require caseworkers to take into account the use, among visa and green card applicants, of government services like Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Those who seek to remain in the U.S. will have to prove they’re not burdening the nation with a “public charge” ― that is, a cost to the government and its citizens.

Cuccinelli told reporters the new policy “better ensures that immigrants are able to successfully support themselves as they seek opportunity here in America.” He described the policy as an effort to “uphold the rule of law” and support “the core values needed to make the American dream a reality.”

“Throughout our history, Americans and legal immigrants have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to pursue their dreams and the opportunity of this great nation,” he said.

However, the rule will target low-income households in need of government assistance, inevitably adding further challenges to their ability to live in the U.S.

To that point, CBS News correspondent Steven Portnoy wondered whether the Statue of Liberty should be stripped of its famous plaque, which bears a poem by Emma Lazarus that has extended a welcome to immigrants for more than a century.

“Is that sentiment ― ‘Give us your tired, your poor’ ― still operative in the United States, or should those words come down?” Portnoy asked.

“I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” Cuccinelli replied, adding that the U.S. has “a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world.” He then noted that the public charge regulation will pertain to nearly 400,000 immigrants each year.

Cuccinelli also argued that the new policy is merely an implementation of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which included a public charge rule. According to Cuccinelli, until now, it had “not been given meaningful effect.”

The standard first entered immigration law in 1882, around the same time that the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. on the grounds that they supposedly jeopardized “the good order of certain localities.”

The rule was again mentioned in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act, which sought to deport immigrants considered a public charge or block them from entry altogether.

Though the standard was included in the 1996 law passed under President Bill Clinton, the administration determined at the time that it would only apply to cash benefits, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, rather than the non-cash programs on which the Trump administration will focus.