Ken Cuccinelli, Donald Trump’s acting Immigration and Citizenship Services boss, has a
peculiar view of American
values — and history.
The “interim” head of the federal immigration agency gave CNN and NPR his personal interpretation of “The New Colossus” Tuesday. The Emma Lazarus poem cast in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty famously welcomes immigrants to New York City.
Its most oft-quoted line — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” — has long been almost universally seen as a beacon to the downtrodden of the world, a signal that better fortune can be found in America; and to the world that the United States will make something positive of such outcasts. This intention seems particularly likely since Lazarus was an advocate for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Russia.
In defending the Trump Administration’s newly expanded policy to deny green cards to immigrants who have in the past used or are likely in the future to use Medicaid, food stamps or other public aid, Cuccinelli — the grandson of Italian immigrants — explained the poem to mean only white, European “huddled masses,” and then only if they aren’t in need of government assistance.
“Of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe,” Cuccinelli said, further explaining the poem wasn’t a promise of help to the “wretched refuse,” who he described as being white Europeans not of the highest class, rather than, you know, the actual needy. To make it perfectly clear, he recited the line itself, adding to it: “… who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
The expansion of the “public charge rule,” announced Monday, will take effect Oct. 15. It’s the latest effort by the administration to cruelly harm those who truly need assistance while reinforcing the political argument that anyone unhappy with their life ought to blame nonwhite immigrants, and those who support them, for their woes.
Beyond its political purposes, the interpretation, and Cuccinelli’s bizarre defense of it, make little sense. Like the proposed U.S. Census question on immigration status, the move is designed to cow immigrants and make them feel more unwelcome — as if that hasn’t already been made clear by the president’s Twitter barrages, the handling of asylum-seekers at the Mexican border and the recent ICE raids.
It’s true, we suppose, that the bulk of immigrants making their way to Ellis Island at the turn of the century were European, and Caucasian. But the idea that white European immigrants are desired and beneficial while nonwhites from other continents are not flies in the face of U.S. history.
Maybe Cuccinelli doesn’t recall — or never learned — about how the strength of the American South was developed on the backs of nonwhite slaves from Africa, or how the intercontinental railroad and other great industrial projects relied on Asian laborers. It may have slipped his notice that 150 years ago, the most reviled U.S. immigrants — openly called disease-ridden, rapists and criminals — were those from Ireland, about as European and white as it gets.
The new rule has already been challenged legally in California and may be elsewhere as well. It may never come to be enforced. We hope that’s the case.
America has often been described as “a great melting pot,” a term meant to celebrate our strength through diversity. There’s no question a large number of Americans see that diversity as threatening, rather than broadening. But our history has never thrived by isolationism or bigotry; it has always been boosted by accepting others and welcoming change.