On Tuesday night, CNN’s Erin Burnett interviewed Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and asked about the Emma Lazarus poem that adorns the Statue of Liberty, a poem Cuccinelli had controversially tweaked earlier in the week.
Here’s the relevant part of their exchange (bolding is mine):
BURNETT: I just played it. The poem reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of the teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Wretched, poor, refuse, that’s what the poem says America supposed to stand for, so what do you think America stands for?
CUCCINELLI: 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, and it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.
So after Cuccinelli had tweaked the Lazarus poem to add, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” to defend this administration’s immigration policies, he is asked to explain what he meant, and he references a time in American history when most immigrants to the United States were coming from Europe?
That sentiment – or, to give Cuccinelli the benefit of the doubt, the way he expressed himself so poorly – has significant echoes of comments made by President Donald Trump himself regarding the people seeking to immigrate to the United States.
Back in January 2018, Trump reportedly told a group of lawmakers seeking to expand protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and several African nations this: “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?” He also added, according to The Washington Post, that the US should try to recruit more migrants from countries like Norway.
Just in case you need me to connect the dots for you: Norway is an almost totally white country. Haiti, El Salvador and African countries are, well, not.
Given that backdrop, it’s stunning that Cuccinelli would a) misquote the Statue of Liberty poem in an interview to add “who can stand on their own two feet” and then b) defend that tweak by noting that the poem was originally written in reference to people – read: white people – coming to the United States from Europe.
Lazarus herself was indeed a champion of the plight of Jewish refugees from Russia, but since that time, her poem has broadly been used to symbolize American openness to migrants from around the globe. That Cuccinelli would even say what he said as his defense of reworking the poem shows how clueless he was about the criticism in the first place.
(Worth noting: According to the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute, the largest number of immigrants arriving in the US in 2017 came from Mexico. In 1960, it was Italy.)
I’m under no illusion that Cuccinelli will pay any sort of political price for his inflammatory comments. In fact, given what we know of Trump, Cuccinelli’s willingness to invoke race and ethnicity to defend immigration policies in the Trump administration is likely to boost his standing in the White House.
But that doesn’t make what Cuccinelli said acceptable. Or something we should simply ignore. It’s neither of those things.