Margaret Valenti questions the recent expansions of public charge announced by acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli and what it means for immigration in the United States.

“Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Trump administration, said on Monday, August 12th while announcing an expansion of public charge requirements to become naturalized, quoting the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus. With recent changes, an individual can not enter the United States as an immigrant if they will certainly become a ward of the state upon approval.

Immigration law is very complex and is applied on a case by case basis as each individual’s circumstances are unique. These expansions do not apply to refugees, asylum seekers, pregnant women, children, and family members of those serving in the Armed Forces, only to those seeking to apply for citizenship or seeking an adjustment of status. The expansion states that if an immigrant applied for U.S. citizenship but is likely to need federal assistance of any kind as a primary source of income upon becoming naturalized, then they will not be eligible to become a United States citizen. Their application will be denied. Current naturalized citizens cannot be deported simply due to these expansions.

Cuccinelli’s initial statement and subsequent explanation further exemplify the racist attempts of the Trump administration to decrease the ability of certain immigrants to become naturalized citizens.

What Is Public Charge?

Since the Immigration Act of 1882, anyone trying to immigrate to the U.S. can be denied entry if it is felt that they have the potential of becoming a public charge. The concepts outlined in the public charge restrictions to immigration changed and/or expanded with each new administration because the term “public charge” is not defined by law. 

The factors related to who can or can not become a naturalized US citizen are complex and constantly revised even though some are still quite antiquated by today’s standards: health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills are generally the main factors. Pregnancy was a factor and technically could still be if the person is not married and is not likely to be employable during the pregnancy. Each of these factors can cause a person to be denied the ability to become a U.S citizen, unless the person in question has their citizenship sponsored, then public charge does not apply. 

The potential length of time that federal assistance is necessary is also considered and impacts the decision on who becomes a citizen and who does not. An adjudicator must look through all of the factors, not just one, to determine if a person applying for citizenship will require government assistance in the future if they are admitted. 

Federal programs that apply are cash assistance for income maintenance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF or CalWORKS), general assistance programs which vary by state and local areas, and long term institutionalized care in a nursing home or mental health institution. Programs that do not apply are those similar to food stamps, health insurance, and rental insurance — non-cash benefits. Though lawsuits are already filed against the recent expansion of public charge, the active disregard for the values of the U.S. put into writing in The New Colossus by the Trump administration should be a cause of concern for everyone.

Poverty and lack of opportunity are two of the main reasons why people emigrate to another country, so these restrictions will certainly impact many in the future who wish to enter the U.S. and become citizens. Not everyone who wishes to come to the United States is aware of all of their options because of the complexity of immigration law, not everyone speaks English or can read or write proficiently and certainly should not have to, and the immigration laws of the U.S. are not readily available or easily understood by all who wish to navigate its bureaucratic waters. 

The New Colossus

Certainly, the United States has a shaky history in regard to immigration since the era of colonization all the way to the modern era. Recently, despite the controversies of the Obama administration, it seemed as if the U.S. started to embrace both its painful and joyous history, shining a light on voices previously unheard in the national conversation. Cuccinelli’s misquoting of the poem The New Colossus makes it clear that yet again the Trump administration is attempting to marginalize voices and disregard the lessons learned from a complex and painful history. 

Ken Cuccinelli’s misquoting of the poem is not the first time the White House misinterpreted the meaning of The New Colossus, the famous poem alongside the Statue of Liberty in New York City which reads as follows:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “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 White House disregarded the poem entirely during a confrontation between CNN’s Jim Acosta and Steven Miller when Miller tried to argue that the values in the poem were not “American” since the Statue of Liberty was not initially constructed with the poem. However, the poem’s purpose was to encourage people to donate money for the construction of the statues pedestal and assembly. Emma Lazarus’ poem clearly refers to people who may not be able to take care of themselves due to their circumstances. Specifically, it is thought that Lazarus referred to the Jewish people of Russia fleeing during the Czarist era. 

Cuccinelli tried to pivot what his recent statement meant in an appearance on CNN, insisting that he was not quoting Lazarus’ poem, despite him saying “give me your tired, your poor.” Cuccinelli argued that the term “wretched” referred to a class system that existed in Europe at the time. He also argued that the “wretched” European migrants did not fall under the restrictions for immigrants under the public charge at the time. When he refers solely to European immigration, he completely disregards the fact that immigrants to the United States come from all over the world. His explanation of his words is actively racist because he is prioritizing European immigration over immigration from every other place on Earth.  

Essentially, these two instances where the White House has tried to reinterpret or disregard The New Colossus entirely points out a very significant policy change in the way the White House sees America, in relation to immigration. The Trump administration’s immigration policy was criticized from the beginning of his campaign for President. Since his presidency started, we see the cages, and the deaths, and the domestic terrorist attacks. Simply put, diversity counters racism and vice versa and the Trump administration — beyond reason — actively promotes racism through their words and actions.

Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.