Cuccinelli torches famous Statue of Liberty immigrant quote

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," the acting USCIS chief said.

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By Allan Smith

In an effort to defend a new Trump administration rule aimed at making it harder for poorer legal immigrants to stay in the U.S., acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli offered a new take Tuesday on the poem attached to the Statue of Liberty.

"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 during in an interview with NPR's "Morning Edition."

The poem, titled "The New Colossus" and written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, reads: "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 interview followed the administration's Monday announcement of a rule that would make it more difficult for low-income, legal immigrants who receive public assistance to remain in the country legally. That rule, set to go into effect in mid-October, would require immigrants who apply for a change in their immigration status or those who seek to come to the U.S. legally to prove that they are unlikely to ever need public assistance. The rule can also prevent immigrants who have already received a certain level of public assistance from having their applications approved.

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When NPR's Rachel Martin said the new rule seems to alter the definition of the American dream, Cuccinelli said it did not.

"We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege," Cuccinelli said. "Not everyone has the right to be an American."

Cuccinelli said "all immigrants who can stand on their own two feet" and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" are welcome.

He defended his comments in an interview with Hill.TV later on Tuesday, saying that "we do expect people to stand on their own two feet to care for themselves."

"In federal law it goes back 140 years but you’ll find public charge laws on the books all the way into the Colonial era," he said. "This is part and parcel of America’s immigration history. We want people to come here. We’re the most generous nation in the history of the world when it comes to immigration but we do expect people to stand on their own two feet to care for themselves."

He also told CNN's Erin Burnett that "that poem was referring to people coming back from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren't in the right class."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump seemed to approve of Cuccinelli's revision. Asked if he thought the famed poem should be changed, the president said: "I don't think it's fair to have the American taxpayer, pay for people to come into the United States.

"I am tired of seeing our taxpayers paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things," he continued. "So I think we're doing it right."

On Monday, Cuccinelli said the government will conduct a "meaningful analysis" of whether an immigrant "is likely to become a public charge or not" when reviewing their applications. That review could consider a variety of areas such as education, assets and credit scores.

Though existing immigration law prevents immigrants who are likely "to become a public charge" from changing or renewing their immigration status, a "public charge" was not defined. This rule will define that as any immigrant who benefits personally from at least one public benefit for one year during a three-year period.

Jane C. Timm contributed.