Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to the United States was meant to apply to Europeans.
According to the Huffpost, the Trump official was asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett about Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem, which reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The poem has stood as a symbol of the United States’ roots in immigration since it was added to the Statue of Liberty in 1903.
Cucinelli had previously reworded the famous inscription, changing it to: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
Burnett pushed the politician on the change, asking him what he believed America stood for.
Cuccinelli replied that the poem was referring to Europeans hoping to immigrate to the United States.
“Well, 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,” he said. “And it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.”
The public charge rule, he went on to explain, says that anyone who is unable to care for themselves without relying on public assistance would not be able to become a permanent resident of the U.S.
While the poem specifically mentions offering a “world-wide welcome,” the Virginia conservative didn’t explain why he felt the poem was specific to any one group of immigrants.
Cuccinelli’s comments come as a defense against Donald Trump’s hardline stance against immigrants. The president has implemented what critics see as overly-harsh policies that have harmed migrants looking to seek asylum in the country. He has also used language that many interpret as disparaging to migrants, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and calling countries in South America and Africa “s***hole” countries, stating that the U.S. should seek to encourage more immigration from countries like Norway.
— CNN (@CNN) August 13, 2019
According to The Hill, Cuccinelli defended his comments, which sparked an intense backlash, on Wednesday. The politician said that the federal law mandating that people not rely on public assistance goes back 140 years.
“We want people to come here. We’re the most generous nation in the history of the world when it comes to immigration but we do expect people to stand on their own two feet to care for themselves,” he said.
Again, he didn’t explain why this would indicate that European immigrants are preferred.