Annie Polland had an immediate thought after she heard Ken Cuccinelli’s revision of the famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: Her sixth-grade students seemed to understand Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” better than the head of the nation’s legal immigration system did.

“Clearly, he did not take part in our curriculum,” said Polland, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is leading a three-year initiative called the Emma Lazarus Project.

She had recently asked the class to rewrite Lazarus’ poem for a national competition. And while the 11-year-olds welcomed the tired, poor and huddled masses, Cuccinelli – acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – took a different direction as he offered his own twist to an NPR reporter Tuesday.

“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.

Cuccinelli’s off-the-cuff edit befuddled and concerned immigration historians who saw his comments as a distortion of one of the nation’s most symbolic ideals. Cuccinelli made the quip in the wake of Citizenship and Immigration Services’ announcement last week that it will expand the “public charge” rule, punishing poor immigrants who use government benefits by making it tougher for them to earn green cards. In interviews with NPR and CNN on Tuesday, Cuccinelli called the public charge doctrine a “140-year tradition in this country,” a “central part of our heritage as Americans.”

But to Polland, Cuccinelli’s fixation on what he viewed as the burden of poor immigrants represented the exact opposite of the lasting impression of Lazarus’ words. To her, he was attempting to replace the spirit of the Jewish poet’s compassionate vision for America with a policy directive directly contradicting it.

“It really goes against the whole spirit of the poem,” she said. “To just pull out a law and say that it is symbolic of America is a distortion of a much more complicated reality.”

Lazarus was asked to write the poem in 1883 as part of a fundraiser put on by newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer to raise money for the construction of the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus had come from a well-to-do family, as The Washington Post reported in a 2017 story about her life, but she turned to immigrant advocacy after witnessing the mistreatment of thousands of newly arrived Eastern European Jews in the early 1880s. She discovered them living in squalor in overcrowded living facilities that were overflowing with garbage, with little access to clean water, education or job training.

Her experience formed the backdrop of the famous stanzas Lazarus composed: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The refuse of your teeming shore/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Cuccinelli attempted to clarify his comments last Tuesday night in an interview with CNN, insisting that he was not “rewriting poetry.” He said the 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 only fueled more backlash.

“Watched the clip again and would like to reiterate that Ken Cuccunnelli is a racist who doesn’t understand the first thing about America,” wrote Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

“Ken Cuccinelli just gave the game away,” said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. “Racism is the point of their policy.”

Rather than place the poem in the context of Lazarus’ experience with poor Jewish immigrants, Cuccinelli repeatedly stressed a different backdrop for Lazarus’s poem: that she wrote it one year after the first federal public charge law was passed.

“Very interesting timing,” Cuccinelli had said.

The Immigration Act of 1882 denied entry to any “convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The provision is rooted in Colonial-era “poor laws,” in which states like Massachusetts could deny entry to or deport poor or disabled people, as Hidetaka Hirota, author of “Expelling the Poor,” wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week.

In 1903 – the same year Lazarus’ poem was actually inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, Cuccinelli noted again – Congress expanded the rule to allow deportation of any foreigner who became a public charge within five years of coming to the United States. Public charge deportations were carried out only if the cause of a person’s dependency on welfare originated before their arrival in the United States, such as if they had a serious disability or illness that officials had overlooked – not because they fell on hard times.

“Cuccinelli is right,” Erika Lee, a professor of immigration history at the University of Minnesota, wrote in a Twitter thread Tuesday. “The law has been on the books for a long time, and we have always targeted the poor. But that does not make it right.”

Both Lee and Hirota were among the immigration history professors to write to the Department of Homeland Security last year warning the agency not to implement the expanded “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” rule. For more than a century, immigrants could not be penalized in any way for using benefits such as food stamps, social security or Medicaid. The public charge law was not a cornerstone of immigration law in the way Cuccinelli described: It was invoked only in narrow cases, such as long-term institutionalization or prolonged subsistence, the professors noted. In 1916, for example, according to the memo, about 1 million immigrants arrived in the country, but immigration officials excluded only about 1 percent of them on public charge grounds.

The Trump administration’s change would greatly expand the number of immigrants who are penalized, denying green cards to those who use taxpayer-funded benefits or even who are likely to use them in the future.

The immigration history professors warned DHS: “The proposals for these sweeping changes in immigration public charge policy would reverse over 100 years in consistent policy.”

As the backlash reverberated Tuesday, some critics, including CNN’s Erin Burnett, pointed out that if Cuccinelli’s vision of immigration in America had actually existed in 1903, their ancestors may have been labeled burdensome and sent back to their country on a ship.

“If the Trump admin’s new anti-immigrant ‘public charge’ rule and acting (USCIS director) Ken Cuccinelli’s bastardized wording of Emma Lazarus’s poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty had been in effect 115 years ago, I would not be here today,” wrote Stephen Schwartz, co-author of “Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940.”

On Tuesday night, Polland shared some of the poems written by her sixth-graders, saying they showed a stark contrast from Cuccinelli in their visions for American immigration.

“I will accept the poor, the meek, the ruthless and wild/ It is you that I will take in, as my own child,” one wrote.

“A copper goddess towers over the poor and pitied, forgotten and alone,” wrote another sixth-grader. “Her splendor not gone, but her voice silenced.”


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