By Mahita Gajanan
Updated: August 14, 2019 12:00 PM ET | Originally published: August 13, 2019

A top Trump immigration official offered an edit to the iconic poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty in the wake of the Administration’s newly announced plan making it tougher for some immigrants to obtain green cards.

Schoolchildren nationwide are often taught Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus,” which reads, in part, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services acting director Ken Cuccinelli suggested a tweak to the poem while speaking with NPR Tuesday morning.

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said while trying to justify the new rule from the Trump administration that will limit legal immigration.

Cuccinelli took his meaning of the poem even further later on Tuesday, when he said Lazarus’ words were talking about immigrants who come from Europe while speaking on CNN.

Cuccinelli’s comments on the poem came a day he announced the new plan to deny green cards to applicants who use public assistance, such as Medicaid and food stamps. Starting in October, immigration services will measure whether applicants are likely to become a “public charge” for using public assistance services — and that factor will weigh against them in green card consideration, he said.

The acting immigration head also addressed Lazarus’ poem during Monday’s announcement, when he was asked if the words should be removed in the wake of the new rule. “Well, I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” he told reporters. “We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world on a lot of bases — whether you be an asylee, whether you be coming here to join your family or immigrating yourself.”

The move was heavily criticized by immigration rights groups who argue that the Trump Administration is aiming to reduce legal immigration. While federal law enables immigration officials to determine whether applicants will be a burden, the new rule breaks down exactly who will be considered a “public charge.” Under the regulation, an applicant who receives one or more designated forms of public assistance for more than 12 months in aggregate within a 36-month period would have that weigh against them in the process of getting a green card, Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli argued that the new rule would help to ensure that immigrants won’t become a burden, touting what the administration sees as the virtues of self-sufficiency during Monday’s announcement. He rejected criticism that the regulation targets poor people. “A poor person can be prepared to be self-sufficient,” he said. “Many have been through the history of this country. So let’s not look at that as the be-all, end-all, and it’s not the deciding factor.”

Speaking with NPR on Tuesday, Cuccinelli said welfare benefits would be one among several factors officials will use to consider whether an applicant would be a “public charge.” “If they don’t have future prospects of being legal permanent residents without welfare, that will be counted against them,” he said.

When asked if Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor” — were still a part of the American ethos, Cuccinelli responded: “They certainly are,” before adding that any “tired and poor” people who came to the U.S. should be able to “stand on their own two feet” and not “become a public charge.”

The same day, Cuccinelli was asked on CNN about what he thought America stands for in reference to a line Lazarus wrote about taking in those “yearning to breathe free.” He said, “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.”

Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883, when the majority of immigrants to the U.S. came from Ireland and Germany, according to the Pew Research Center. But not all immigrants at the time were from Europe—a large number of Chinese people came to the U.S. between 1849 and 1882 when the California gold rush took off, according to the Library of Congress. The rush of Chinese immigration came to an end in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in response to anti-Chinese sentiments throughout the country following an economic downturn in the 1870s.

By 1903, when Lazarus’ words were put on a bronze plaque and added to the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. was also seeing some immigration from Mexico as mining and agriculture became big industries in the Southwest. Following the Mexican Revolution, the number of immigrants coming from Mexico grew from 20,000 per year between 1910 and 1920 to about 50,000 to 100,000 a year in the 1920s.

Trump also weighed in on Cuccinelli’s additions to the poem. Asked if there should be changes to the Statue of Liberty poem, he replied, “It’s about America first. I don’t think it’s fair to have the American taxpayer pay for people to come in to the United States … I’m tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go on welfare and various other things. So I think we’re doing it right.”

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com.

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