Trump immigration official: Give me your tired, your poor — but not too poor

Dylan Stableford
Senior Writer

President Trump’s top immigration official suggested a footnote to the iconic poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, in line with the administration’s policy of favoring immigrants with the skills and means to support themselves.

In an interview with NPR on Tuesday morning, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was questioned about the administration's plan to curb legal immigration by denying green cards and citizenship to immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps or housing assistance.

Cuccinelli was asked whether the words from Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” continue to be “part of the American ethos.” The famous passage reads in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“They certainly are,” Cuccinelli replied, but then amended the excerpt in notably less poetic language: “Give me your tired and your poor — who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at a White House briefing Aug. 12; the Statue of Liberty; and "The New Colossus." (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Evan Vucci/AP, Getty Images, National Park Service)

Speaking to reporters in Morristown, N.J., later Tuesday morning, Trump was asked about the sonnet.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer pay for people to come to the United States,” the president said.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced the new “public charge” rule requiring immigration officials to take into account whether an immigrant is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” when applying for a visa or an adjustment to permanent resident status.

“President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful in America,” Cuccinelli said during a Monday press briefing at the White House.

During the briefing, Cuccinelli was asked by CBS News Radio correspondent Steven Portnoy if the words on the base of the statue, which have been there since 1903, should “come down.”

“I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” Cuccinelli replied.

It’s not the first time an administration official has been challenged by reporters over the statue’s famous inscription.

In 2017, CNN’s Jim Acosta sparred with White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller during a press briefing over Trump’s support of a merit-based immigration system that would favor migrants who were educated and spoke English.

“When it comes to immigration, the Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” Acosta said. “It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or learning to be a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country, if you are telling them you have to speak English? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?”

“Right now it is a requirement to be naturalized that you have to speak English,” Miller replied. “So the notion that speaking English wouldn’t be part of your immigration system would be very ahistorical.”


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