Acting director of U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli said earlier this week that the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty should be edited to say “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
He made the statement at a news conference while defending the Trump administration’s latest foray in to immigration policy: a plan to investigate how much immigrants rely on social safety net programs in factoring whether they should be granted permanent legal status.
The poem, “The New Colossus,” penned by Emma Lazarus and etched into the pedestal of America’s most iconic landmark in 1903, reads, in part: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Almost every American knows these words by heart. They signify the United States’ identity as a nation formed by people seeking a better life after fleeing war, poverty, famine and persecution from all other corners of the globe.
Has immigration ever been as simple as Lazarus’ ideal? No. But the fact remains that every American today (aside from the indigenous people who were treated poorly in the fledgling days of this country or those who were brought here unwillingly as slaves) traces their lineage to a family that came from elsewhere seeking a life in the land of opportunity.
Cuccinelli’s crude revision is a slap in the face of some of the country’s most basic tenets of its own identity. To make matters worse, in an attempt to somehow clarify his remarks in a subsequent interview, Cuccinelli said the context of the poem refers to “people coming from Europe, where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
This is Cuccinelli’s not-so-subtle way of saying: You know, white immigrants from a long time ago; the good kind. In Cuccinelli’s mind, and the mind of his boss, some of the most basic principles that have guided this country, and adapted and expanded to be more inclusive as America has grown, don’t apply to today’s immigrants. Namely, people who aren’t white, coming in through the southern border or fleeing war in the Middle East.
This isn’t even the first time someone in the Trump administration has had a bone to pick with the poem on the Statue of Liberty. Recall that top Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the menacing face behind some of the administration’s most draconian attempts to keep nonwhite, non-Christian immigrants out, made a big deal about how the poem wasn’t originally part of the statue, being affixed at a later date.
These are the wrong kinds of debates for the United States to be engaged in. The country’s bedrock as a land where someone can come and find a better life, make it on their own and contribute to the betterment of society isn’t negotiable or up for interpretation. If immigrants (and keep in mind, in this case, these are people here legally who want to stay) have to rely on social aid programs like Medicaid and food stamps to get by, that’s not a problem. That’s what those programs are there for. It may come as a surprise, but they’re not going to be using them forever.
These people are not a drain on our society. Those who want to keep them out, or keep immigrants from having the same opportunity that their ancestors had, are much more dangerous to the future of America than those who would perpetuate the country’s most cherished ideals.