Speed Reads

Lit crit

U.S. immigration chief Ken Cuccinelli claims Statue of Liberty poem is about 'people coming from Europe'

On NPR Tuesday morning, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, proposed some editorial changes to the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty, seeking to make the text of "The New Colossus" fit President Trump's new policy discouraging legal citizens from accessing public assistance like food stamps. On CNN Tuesday night, Cuccinelli offered some literary criticism, specifically arguing that Lazarus used "wretched" as a technical term in her 1883 poem.

"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 told CNN's Erin Burnett when she asked him what he thinks "America stands for."

The poem envisions the Statue of Liberty as the "Mother of Exiles" with a beacon glowing "world-wide welcome."

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,With conquering limbs astride from land to land;Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall standA mighty woman with a torch, whose flameIs the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles. From her beacon-handGlows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes commandThe air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries sheWith silent lips. “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!” [The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus]

"Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted in response to Cuccinelli's comments. "They will not be replaced. And I will fight for those values and for our immigrant communities." Another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Beto O'Rourke, offered a sharper critique: "This administration finally admitted what we've known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people."