Trump official: Statue of Liberty poem should mean 'poor who can stand on own two feet'

Edward Helmore in New York
Photograph: Photographer is my life./Getty Images

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), has proposed a new interpretation of the famous welcome that appears on a placard at the Statue of Liberty.

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The famous lines, taken from The New Colossus by the 19th-century New York poet Emma Lazarus, read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In media interviews on Tuesday, Cuccinelli said the poem was about European immigrants escaping class-based prejudice and that America was looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet”.

He suggested a change to the words which would say: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

On NPR’s Morning Edition, Cuccinelli defended the Trump administration decision to make it harder for migrants to be awarded permanent residence, or a “green card”, if they have ever accepted benefit programs such as food stamps, housing assistance or Medicaid.

Starting in October, decisions on green card applicants will be based on a wealth test, meant to establish if they have the means to support themselves. Poor migrants will be denied if they are deemed likely to use government programs.

The policy change triggered a swift backlash, some critics saying migrants may now drop out of government assistance programmes even if they are not seeking permanent residence.

Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan tweeted: “I am so tired of waking up to cruel and hateful policies like this one. Too many have been hurt. We must and will fight – and we will win.”

CBS White House correspondent Weijia Jiang tweeted: “My dad came to the US with $40. My mom and I followed with $0. We were tired. We were poor. But this beautiful country helped us become Americans.”

Cuccinelli’s remarks were perhaps made in jest but nonetheless point to the administration’s stated intention to reduce legal immigration.

Cuccinelli said it “doesn’t seem like too much to ask” for migrants to be self-sufficient.

“It does not change what makes America exceptional,” he said. “We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege.”