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  • Steve Hamelman

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

America's symbol of freedom, abused by a crass Trump administration official.

Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?

If it’s not President Donald Trump uttering slurs against the American public and character, then it’s one of his proxies doing so. In this case—and here you should take a deep breath before reading his official title—it’s Acting United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli.

Citing the lines “Give me your tired, your poor” from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “The New Colossus,” etched into a plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, NPR reporter Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli to say something about the recent tightening of U.S. immigration policy.

Cuccinelli, a lawyer fond of quoting from policy statements as if to stave off criticism of his department, responded to Martin’s prompt as if waiting for this opportunity to revise this classic American poem in the spirit of his boss: “Give me your tired and your poor, who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Was he joking? Perhaps Cuccinelli, speaking without humor, actually thought he was quoting Lazarus verbatim.

As for “public charge,” has Cuccinelli never heard of federal subsidies granted to the oil and gas industry, to the banking sector, to automobile manufacturers?

For readers who might have forgotten, Lazarus’s actual words are “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.”

Last year I taught at a university in Nanjing, China, for a month. I brought with me a handful of American poems that I believed would reflect my country at its best.

The first poem I taught was “The New Colossus.” I went deep into it, leaving 120 young Chinese college students in awe of Lazarus’s technical skill and of her soaring theme. You can be sure these young Chinese understood Lazarus’s profound message. I have rarely felt so proud to be an American.

And then I come home to Ken Cuccinelli.

Nonetheless, once again, not a peep from Republicans. It’s up to the so-called “liberal” mainstream to remind everyone how far Republican policy has diverged from the promise embodied in “The New Colossus” and the iconic statue it commemorates.

But it’s more than policy. It’s a total way of thinking. Cuccinelli expresses an ungenerous, insular, reactionary world view running counter to America’s best instincts as a nation—a nation that has historically welcomed people from all corners of the globe.

Leave it to Republicans to twist the words of a sacrosanct American text.

What will the likes of Cuccinelli revise next? The Declaration of Independence?

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