Citizenship agency chief Ken Cuccinelli is pushing back against pro-migration activists who say he is changing the United States by rewriting an 1883 poem.
The trigger for the dispute was the August 12 release of long-awaited rules needed to implement the long-standing laws that deny green cards to foreign people who will need taxpayer charity to stay out of poverty.
Pro-migration critics claim the rules would violate the “give us your poor, your tired” poem, which was added to the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal in 1903, 17 years after the statue was dedicated in 1886.
The plaque with the poem is now in the museum under the statue, which is named “Liberty Enlightening the World” because it was created to show foreign nations the benefits of American liberty, not to provide a navigation light for migrants.
Progressives portray the poem as a quasi-constitutional document.
“The words on the Statue of Liberty won’t be changed at the racist whims of this administration—and neither will the character of this country,” said a tweet from Democrat 2020 candidate Robert O’Rourke.
“Trump is rewriting the meaning of America,” claimed a Washington Post op-ed. “Literally.”
“This hateful, bigoted rule is a direct assault on our nation’s proud heritage as a beacon of hope and opportunity for all. … It will be swiftly challenged and defeated in the courts,” said an August 13 tweet from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Cuccinelli is at the center of the law vs. poem debate because he is the acting head of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency.
Cuccinelli initially tried to sidestep questions about the 1883 poem, titled “The New Colossus.” For example, in the August 12 press conference in the White House announcing the new rules, he was asked, “You are implementing a public charge rule for the first time. Is that sentiment, ‘Give us your tired, your poor’ still operative in the United States? Or should those words come down? Should the plaque come down off the Statue of Liberty?”
“Well, I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” Cuccinelli responded. “We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world on a lot of bases, whether you be an asylee, whether you be coming in here to join your family or immigrating yourself,” he added.
But Cuccinelli is now aggressively making the case for law in multiple media appearances amid the emotional insistence by progressives that the 1883 poem overrides law, Congress, and the voters.
“There’s a lot of misinformation and distraction out there around the public charge rule,” Cuccinelli responded in an August 14 tweet. “Read my op-ed and get the real facts,” he wrote on Twitter before tweeting a picture of himself standing with a model of the statue:
We got a lovely new decoration outside our office today! It’s a good thing we love liberty! pic.twitter.com/j1p598hN5c
— USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli (@USCISCuccinelli) August 15, 2019
Cuccinelli tweeted a link to a history of the U.S. public charge law, which began long before the poem was written or the United States even existed:
The great team @USCIS wrote up this great historical piece last yr on the history of public charge in America. Here is a link for all of you history buffs who also care about immigration policy: https://t.co/VdOdNamnXZ
— USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli (@USCISCuccinelli) August 15, 2019
The USCIS study reported:
Immigration policies barring the admission of aliens likely to become public charges predate federal immigration regulations and have been a part of U.S. immigration policy since the first general immigration law of 1882. For more than 100 years the LPC [Likely to Become a Public Charge] provision remained one of the most common reasons for excluding immigrants from the United States. Federal policies providing for the deportation of immigrants who have actually become public charges date to 1891 and also remain part of current immigration law.
The case is backed up by Daniel Horowitz at Conservative Review:
Liberals in the media are breathlessly accusing the Trump administration of violating the spirit of “The New Colossus,” a poem written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 and placed on a plaque in the Statue of Liberty 20 years later. In their minds, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” means “yearning to get on welfare.”
By all our history and law, what the Left is doing by marrying mass migration with a mass welfare state that didn’t exist at the time the statue was built or the poem written is the opposite of what the poem calls for. Indeed, the statue was originally referred to as “Liberty Enlightening the World,” meaning it was about America enlightening the rest of the world with liberty. Liberty, as understood by the people of that era, never included even the redistribution of wealth among the citizens of this country, much less redistributing it to the citizens of the rest of the world.
The media is making fun of Ken Cuccinelli tweaking the poem by saying, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet. And who will not become a public charge.” But that is actually the application of the poem. The poem meant that America on its own, an America without welfare, offers the liberty that allows poor people to become prosperous.
In an op-ed for CNN, for example, Cuccinelli wrote:
“Public charge” has been part of US immigration law for more than 100 years as a ground of inadmissibility and deportation but has never been defined in the statute …
The Trump administration recognizes that while the United States is the most generous country in the world, American taxpayers already work very hard to provide for the needs of their own families. The resources needed to fund those coming into the country must not overburden Americans unnecessarily.
Under the new regulation, Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency tasked with administering our nation’s lawful immigration system, will evaluate applications for those seeking to come here in a way that faithfully implements federal law and better ensures self-sufficiency. Our officers will generally consider an immigrant’s current and past receipt of designated public benefits while in the United States — such as public housing, food stamps, most Medicaid use or cash assistance — as a negative factor when examining applications.
Pro-migration advocates accept Cuccinelli’s legal analysis. “Cuccinelli is right. The law has been on the books for a long time,” tweeted Erika Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota, and the director of the Immigration History Research Center. “But that does not make it right,” she added.
The vehement opposition to the rules is based on the advocates’ fear that America’s public, law, and history refute their political claim that the poem converts the United States into a nation of and for immigrants, not a nation of and for Americans.
“Cuccinelli’s words are absolutely not what the U.S. stands for,” tweeted Democrat Rep. Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-born “Nation of Immigrants” advocate. “The public charge rule openly contradicts the welcoming, inclusive words inscribed on our Statue of Liberty. This goes against one of our nation’s bedrock values.”
The immigrant author of the Washington Post’s op-ed, Max Boot, wrote:
When asked on NPR whether the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”) are “part of the American ethos,” Cuccinelli replied, “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.” Later that day, on CNN, he said, “Of course, that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
That’s two rewrites in one day of a poem that for more than a century has defined the United States as a nation of immigrants, open to all. Not just European immigrants. Not just wealthy immigrants. All immigrants.
A second Washington Post op-ed included the headline “Don’t let the Trump administration vandalize Lady Liberty’s inspiring message”:
Over the decades, “The New Colossus” has acquired a patina of universality. Its phrases are as familiar to us as “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Staining “The New Colossus” with the bile of discrimination is a shameful act of cultural defilement.
In a sense, Cuccinelli is offering a literary version of President Trump’s statement to his followers in 2018: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” After all, anyone with an open heart who’s read that poem emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, recited it in school or sung it in a choir has felt the power of those lines and knows what they mean. Cuccinelli’s clumsy gloss articulates a suspicious, begrudging permission extended only to the sufficiently equipped. What Lazarus articulates is a uniquely American ideal, a radical welcome that doesn’t presume anything except our common humanity.
But that, of course, goes right to the heart of the Trump administration’s efforts to divide us into worthy and unworthy, into patriots from a blessed country and rapists from “shithole countries.” It was only a matter of time before some Trump official started scratching at the bronze plaque with a screwdriver. The president’s immigration policy is a wholesale rejection of what’s best about American idealism in exchange for what’s worst about American nativism.
The poem “is our go-to text for responding to this administration’s harsh immigration restrictions and the execrable treatment of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border,” claimed Esther Schor, a professor at Princeton University.
Immigration lawyer Charles Kuck tweeted, “Emma Lazarus is rolling over in her grave right now.” On August 14, he tweeted a response to an article about Cuccinelli’s recent accomplishments, saying, “Total evisceration of all that ties us together as a nation of immigrants. A ‘reign of infamy’ if we have ever seen one, and all from an illegally appointed, nativist hack. It will be a joy to reverse all of this is 18 months.”
Cuccinelli and his boss, President Donald Trump, favor immigration. But they disagree with the progressives’ demand that the poem must override the nation’s history and its laws, as well as the preferences of government and the American people:
Like I said, he’s not a restrictionist. https://t.co/VHJarAnF4I
— Mark Krikorian (@MarkSKrikorian) August 7, 2019
“I’ll drive it home with a sledgehammer here,” Cuccinelli told Breitbart News. “America’s immigration system is first and foremost for the benefit of America. Period”:
USCIS chief Ken Cuccinelli rejects the progressives’ project to turn the Statue of Liberty into an open-borders navigation beacon: “America’s immigration system is first and foremost, for the benefit of America. Period,” he says. https://t.co/EMQ5EGsSe1
— Neil Munro (@NeilMunroDC) August 13, 2019