Trump’s top immigration official Ken Cuccinelli says the Statue of Liberty poem refers to ‘people coming from Europe,’ and some Democrats are saying it’s a racist dog whistle

Ken Cuccinelli, a top Trump immigration official, has sparked controversy over recent comments on the Statue of Liberty poem.

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Ken Cuccinelli, a top Trump immigration official, has sparked controversy over recent comments on the Statue of Liberty poem.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

  • Acting US Immigration and Citizenship Services Director Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday said the iconic poem on the Statue of Liberty refers to “people coming from Europe.”
  • The poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, was written in 1883 as a tribute to refugees and immigrants. There is no evidence that Lazarus only wrote this about European immigrants.
  • “This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people,” former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke tweeted in reference to Cuccinelli’s comments.
  • There’s no evidence the poem was written exclusively in reference to European immigrants, though many people migrated to the US from western and northern Europe at the time.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Acting US Immigration and Citizenship Services Director Ken Cuccinelli on Tuesday said the iconic poem on the Statue of Liberty refers to “people coming from Europe,” a controversial and baseless claim that comes as he’s defended himself by trying to reword the poem to support the Trump administration’s tough immigration policy.

In an interview with CNN, Cuccinelli was asked what he thinks America stands for during a conversation on the poem and his reimagining of it.

“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,” Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli has since faced accusations from Democrats of promoting ethnonationalism and racism.

“This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people,” former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke tweeted in reference to Cuccinelli’s comments.

Similarly, Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz in a tweet reacting to Cuccinelli, said, “Looks like they had a meeting and decided to make racism the main theme of the re-elect.”

The poem at the center of all of this, “The New Colossus,” was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883. She was asked to write the poem to help raise money for the statue’s pedestal.

Lazarus, a New Yorker of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish descent, worked as an aide to refugees on Ward’s Island when she wasn’t writing poetry. The words of the poem were inspired by her work with refugees and a testament to waves of immigrants coming to the US.

There’s no evidence the poem was written exclusively in reference to European immigrants, though many people migrated to the US from western and northern Europe at the time – rising anti-immigrant sentiment at the time yielded a law that prevented Chinese nationals from becoming US citizens.

Lazarus, inspired by her own Sephardic Jewish heritage, her experiences working with refugees on Ward’s Island, and the plight of the immigrant, wrote ‘The New Colossus’ on November 2, 1883,” according to the National Park Service.

The Statue of Liberty – a gift from France – was originally intended to be a symbol celebrating the abolition of slavery. But that message did not stick and was lost by the time the statue was unveiled in 1886.

Read more: The history of the famous poem on the Statue of Liberty that keeps annoying Trump officials

Eventually, the statue became associated with immigration and has long been viewed as a symbol of the millions of people who’ve come to the US from across the globe in search of a better life. This is in part thanks to Lazarus’ poem, though the plaque it’s inscribed on was not added to the statue until 1903.

The history of the era Lazarus lived through and the immigration policies of those times have many parallels to the divivise debate over immigration in the present day.

“The New Colossus” was written a year after the Immigration Act of 1882 was passed, which gave the government authority to prohibit entry to people who were likely to become a “public charge.” In other words, it allowed the US to reject entry to immigrants who were deemed likely to depend on the goverment for support. That same year, lawmakers passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese workers from entering the US and barred Chinese nationals from becoming US citizens. The law was in force for over 60 years.

Read more: Trump’s top immigration official reimagined the Statue of Liberty poem to argue the US should welcome only immigrants ‘who can stand on their own 2 feet’

Cuccinelli has alluded to this troubled history as he’s made the case for a new Trump administration policy that could block immigrants from obtaining green cards if they rely on government assistance.

When asked by NPR if the words of the poem are part of the American ethos,” Cuccinelli responded with a reimagined version of Lazarus’ poem.

“They certainly are – give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed – very interesting timing.”

The words to the famous poem are actually: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”