he sun sets on the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building in New York City on August 1, 2019 as seen from Bayonne, New Jersey. | Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
The Statue of Liberty is emblazoned with a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus that famously reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Those words in particular and the monument in general have stood for more than a century as a symbol of America’s openness to immigrants, including poor ones.
President Donald Trump’s administration seemingly wants to revise that set of values.
Tuesday morning, acting Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli did an interview on National Public Radio and was asked by host Rachel Martin whether the values in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” sonnet still represented American values — a question that’s pertinent in light of a new restrictive rule the administration introduced the day before that would make it more difficult for poorer immigrants to become US citizens.
“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.
Cuccinelli acknowledged they are — but then suggested a major revision.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he said.
Here’s acting USCIS director Ken Cuccinelli saying on NPR this morning that the Statue of Liberty plaque should be changed to read, “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” pic.twitter.com/q8OoNn3k6r
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 13, 2019
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration has beefed with the Statue of Liberty
The Trump administration’s latest feud with the Statue of Liberty comes a day after administration officials announced a new “public charge” rule, changing green card criteria to more closely examine immigrants’ financial resources.
The new rule would make it more difficult for immigrants who came to the country legally to stay as permanent residents if they’ve used, or are seen as likely to use, public benefits like food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, or Medicaid. In short, it would make the American dream harder to obtain for low-income immigrants, many of whom are already in the country and now face a choice between forgoing services they need and legally entitled to and jeopardizing their immigration status.
This is not the first time the Trump administration’s effort to curtail legal immigration has brought it into public conflict with the Statue of Liberty. Back in August 2017, when the administration was pushing an ill-fated bill that would’ve restricted legal immigration while giving priority to fluent English speakers, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta grilled White House policy adviser Stephen Miller during a news conference about how “what the president is proposing here does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration. … The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”
Miller replied by trying to make a distinction between the statute and Lazarus’s poem, which wasn’t placed on it until years after the statue was installed in New York Harbor.
“I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lighting the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world,” Miller said. “The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
Miller’s talking point didn’t really help matters, as it echoed one commonly used by white nationalists like David Duke and Richard Spencer to suggest that Lazarus somehow perverted the true meaning of the statue, which was a gift from France to the United States and originally conceived to be “a symbol of democratic government and Enlightenment ideals as well as a celebration of the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery,” as the National Parks Service puts it.
Cuccinelli’s suggested revision to the iconic statute’s text is likely to be applauded by the same crowd.