The poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty was long assumed to welcome all immigrants coming to New York City to start their new lives. But a government official says it is specifically about "people coming from Europe".
Trump official Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services said on Tuesday on CNN that the poem referred to Europeans coming from “class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class”.
His comments came a day after the Trump administration announced it would seek to deny green cards - documents allowing legal, permanent residence in the US - to migrants who claim social welfare.
Cuccinelli was asked earlier on Tuesday on radio station NPR’s Morning Edition show whether the words “give me your tired, your poor” were part of the American mindset. Cuccinelli responded: “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.”
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.”
Cuccinelli defended the Trump administration's decision to make it harder for migrants to be awarded permanent residence if they have ever accepted benefits such as food stamps, which helps low-income individuals and families buy food, housing assistance, or Medicaid, which provides medical insurance to low-income people.
Starting in October, decisions on green card applicants will be based on a wealth test, meant to establish if they have the money to support themselves. Poor migrants will be denied if they are deemed likely to use government programmes.
The policy change has sparked criticism. 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.”
White House correspondent for the CBS television network, Weijia Jiang, tweeted: “My dad came to the US with $40. My mum and I followed with $0. We were tired. We were poor. But this beautiful country helped us become Americans.”
Cuccinelli’s remarks were perhaps meant to be a joke 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.”