Annie Polland had an immediate thought after she heard Ken Cuccinelli’s revision of the famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty on Tuesday: Her sixth-grade students seemed to understand Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” better than the head of the nation’s legal immigration system did.
“Clearly, he did not take part in our curriculum,” said Polland, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is leading a three-year initiative called the Emma Lazarus Project.
She had recently asked the class of sixth-graders to rewrite Lazarus’s poem for a national competition. And while the 11-year-olds welcomed the tired, poor and huddled masses, Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, took a different direction as he offered his own twist to an NPR reporter Tuesday.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he said.
Cuccinelli’s off-the-cuff edit befuddled and concerned immigration historians who saw his comments as a distortion of one of the nation’s most symbolic ideals. Cuccinelli made the quip in the wake of USCIS’s announcement this week that it will expand the “public charge” rule, punishing poor immigrants who use government benefits by making it tougher for them to earn green cards. In interviews with NPR and CNN Tuesday, Cuccinelli called the public charge doctrine a “140-year tradition in this country,” a “central part of our heritage as Americans.”