Fury as Trump official says poem on Statue of Liberty refers to 'people from Europe'

Edward Helmore
Photograph: AFP/Getty

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, has sparked a new wave of criticism about the promise of US immigration enshrined in the inscription on the Statue of Liberty by saying it was for “people coming from Europe”.

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The fresh remarks came after Cuccinelli originally triggered outrage by saying that the famous poem on the base of the statue – which starts “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – should be amended to reflect that immigrants coming to America should not use public benefits.

Following those remarks and speaking to CNN, Cuccinelli said the poem was “… of course 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.”

The possible implication of Cuccinelli’s latest statement – that American immigration is a story only of Europeans coming to the US – drew immediate condemnation on social media.

Democratic 2020 candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke tweeted: “This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: they think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people.”

Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, said Cuccinelli’s statement was “not only disgusting, but factually inaccurate. The Statue of Liberty was created to celebrate emancipation.”

Julia Ioffe, a writer at GQ magazine, pointed out that Italians coming to America had been subjected to racial discrimination.

She wrote: “It’s funny how now all of Europe is OK, but 100 years ago, a man with a name like Cuccinelli was from the ‘wrong’ part of that continent.”

The dispute started when Cucinelli proposed an amendment to Emma Lazarus’s sonnet inscribed on the statue to read: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”