News & Politics

Fake News: Trump Official Did Not Say Statue of Liberty Poem Was Only for Europeans

(Image via DOJ)

Did you catch the latest racist dog whistle coming from the Trump administration? If not, that’s okay: the fake news media has you covered. You see, the acting director of U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinelli, said the Statue of Liberty’s poem is about Europeans. Oh, the horror! Clearly, this must be racist, right? Well, the media seems to have thought so:

From The New York Times/Associated Press: “Trump Official: Statue of Liberty Poem Is About Europeans.”

The Washington Post ran the same AP story and headline: “Trump official: Statue of Liberty’s poem is about Europeans.” NBC News and PBS ran the exact same story.

The Hill ran this headline for the video: “Cuccinelli: Statue of Liberty poem refers to people from Europe.”

The New York Daily News went even further: “Statue of Liberty poem was only supposed to welcome white immigrants ‘from Europe,’ Cuccinelli says.”

USA Today: “Immigration official Ken Cuccinelli: Statue of Liberty poem refers to immigrants from Europe.”

The Week: “U.S. immigration chief Ken Cuccinelli claims Statue of Liberty poem is about ‘people coming from Europe’.”

Democrats took up the charge.

“This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people,” 2020 Democrat and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) tweeted.

The hashtag “Cuccinelli Resign” started trending on Twitter as activists and others called for the USCIS acting director to step down.

‘Top Trump official Ken Cuccinelli claims that the inscription on the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants refers to ‘people coming from Europe.’ Racism has no place in government. Racists should resign. That includes Cuccinelli. And Trump,” actor George Takei tweeted.

GQ Magazine correspondent Julia Ioffe tweeted, “The whole point of the Trump political experiment has been to make subtext text. This is just the latest installment. (P.S. It’s funny how now all of Europe is okay, but 100 years ago, a man with a name like Cuccinelli was from the “wrong” part of that continent.)”

But of course, dear reader, you clicked on my own headline because I claimed that this entire facade calling Cuccinelli and his boss President Donald Trump racist is “fake news.” And indeed, it is VERY FAKE NEWS, as our president likes to say.

You see, Cuccinelli made the remarks in response to questions from CNN’s Erin Burnett on Tuesday night. In that interview, Cuccinelli rightly called her out for “twisting this.”

Cuccinelli had been explaining the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule, which allows immigration officials to deny green cards to immigrants who have received certain public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare. The rule does not include various forms of public assistance, however, including Medicare Part D and CHIP.

The USCIS acting director caused a stir on Tuesday when he changed the words in the Statue of Liberty poem “The New Colossus.” When asked about the poem, he said, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” The true quote runs, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Yet Cuccinelli was attempting to make an important point. “Public charge” rules in an immigration context date back to the first comprehensive immigration law, passed in 1882, one year before the Statue of Liberty plaque. While the plaque did not use public charge language, this idea was widely accepted at the time.

In the interview Tuesday night, Burnett asked him to explain himself, specifically how the “public charge” rule fits with the idea of welcoming the “tired” “poor” “huddled masses.” Specifically, she mentioned the terms “wretched,” “poor,” and “refuse.”

“Well, 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.

“It was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written,” Cuccinelli responded.

This is the quote that liberal media outlets and Democrats twisted into a racist claim. Notice, Cuccinelli is explaining the social context behind the use of words like “wretched” and “refuse.” He notes, correctly, that most of the immigration in the 1880s was coming from Europe, and he notes that European countries had class-based societies. The Statue of Liberty poem is a rebuke to those class-based societies which wrongly considered those “yearning to breathe free” to be “refuse.”

From the context of the video, it is abundantly clear that Cuccinelli was not saying that America should not accept immigrants from countries outside Europe or that the poem cannot apply to immigrants from non-European countries.

Yet so many media outlets twisted his words to suggest that. Take, for example, the AP article reprinted in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, NBC News, and PBS. That article begins:

WASHINGTON — A top Trump administration official says the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “huddled masses” of immigrants to American shores, was referring to “people coming from Europe” and that the nation is looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet.”

After this opening, Zeke Miller and Ashley Thomas delve into the Democrats’ response, giving one paragraph to critics who said the public charge rule would “disadvantage those from poorer countries in Latin America and Africa” and a second paragraph to Beto O’Rourke’s attack. The fourth paragraph lists off supposedly racist comments from Trump, including the “sh*thole countries” remark.

Finally, down in the fifth paragraph, the AP story quotes the rest of Cuccinelli’s remarks.

Cuccinelli said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday night that the Emma Lazarus poem emblazoned on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty referred to “people coming from Europe where they had class based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”

Notice the sleight of hand. The headline screams “Trump Official: Statue of Liberty Poem Is About Europeans,” as if Cuccinelli was saying the immigration message applies only to Europeans. Should readers click on the article to read more, they have to get down to the fifth paragraph for the first mention of the real reason Cuccinelli mentioned Europe, and even then the article does not mention that his response comes from a direct question about the term “refuse.”

Of course, New York Daily News‘s Dave Goldiner was worse. He put words in Cuccinelli’s mouth, claiming the acting director said “the verse was only supposed to welcome white immigrants.” He then twisted Cuccinelli’s words even further, claiming the director said: “the ‘give me your poor, your tired’ no longer makes sense in today’s world where many immigrants and refugees are non-white people from developing nations.”

It seems Democrats and their allies in the legacy media are bent on twisting Trump administration statements into racist screeds. Americans can only hope readers take a second look at the actual video to see the truth. Shame on every newspaper printing this story.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.