Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, one of the Trump administration’s top immigration officials, set off a controversy this week with comments about “The New Colossus,” the 136-year-old sonnet at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” reads the poem, by Emma Lazarus.
But on Tuesday morning, Mr. Cuccinelli, the acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, added a caveat.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge,” he said. That evening, he said the poem referred to “people coming from Europe.”
Mr. Cuccinelli had been speaking to news outlets about the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule targeting legal immigrants who want to remain in the United States but are deemed likely to use government benefit programs.
As he made the rounds, at least three journalists asked him about the “The New Colossus.”
Mr. Cuccinelli’s responses drew swift condemnation from those opposed to the new rule — a backlash that also spoke to the enduring symbolic significance of the statue and its sonnet on Liberty Island, just southwest of Manhattan.
“Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, said on Twitter on Tuesday. “They will not be replaced.”
Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination, posted: “The words of the Statue of Liberty won’t be changed at the racist whims of this administration. And neither will the character of this country.”
Mr. Cuccinelli began facing questions about the poem on Monday, when he gave a news conference at the White House.
“You’re implementing a public charge rule for the first time,” Steven Portnoy, a journalist for CBS News Radio, said. “Is that sentiment — give us your tired, your poor — still operative in the United States? Or should those words come down?”
Mr. Cuccinelli responded that he was “certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” and added that the United States had a long history of welcoming migrants.
The poem came up again on Tuesday morning, during an interview with Rachel Martin on National Public Radio.
“Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty — ‘give me your tired, your poor’ — are also part of the American ethos?” Ms. Martin asked.
“They certainly are,” Mr. Cuccinelli said, before adding words of his own: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
That comment was repeated back to him later on Tuesday, during an interview with Erin Burnett on CNN.
Ms. Burnett read the poem’s final lines aloud and added: “Wretched, poor, refuse — right? That’s what the poem says America’s supposed to stand for. So what do you think America stands for?”
“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,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.
“And it was introduced, it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written,” he added. “That says, and I’ll quote it, ‘Any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge’ would be inadmissible. Or, in the terms that my agency deals with, they can’t do what’s called adjusting status: getting a green card, becoming legal permanent residents.”
Mr. Cuccinelli was referring to the Immigration Act of 1882, which said the United States could deny entry to people who were likely to become a “public charge.” That was also the year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was put in place.
Excluding people because of their circumstances or ethnicity was not new to the United States, but until the late 19th century, many of those policy decisions had been left to states and localities.
The Trump administration’s new immigration rule was pushed by the White House adviser Stephen Miller, who has also been asked to reckon with the 1883 sonnet. A reporter read him a line from the poem in 2017, when Mr. Miller was defending President Trump’s plan to cut legal immigration by half.
“The poem that you’re referring to was added later,” he said. “It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
It is true that the statue has not always been associated with migration. The monument was conceived as a celebration of liberty, the end of slavery and the camaraderie between France and the United States.
The French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi originally designed the statue as a lighthouse for the Suez Canal in Egypt. After that project fell through, he became an enthusiastic proponent of putting Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. It was inaugurated on a soggy day in October 1886.
Around that time, Lazarus and many others thought the United States benefited from migrants, or had a moral duty to accept them, said Paul A. Kramer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. But a rising tide of voices favored exclusion.
“The 1880s were a real pivotal moment where you see these very strong pro-immigration approaches colliding with these new nativist and racist approaches,” Dr. Kramer said.
Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883 as part of a fund-raising campaign to pay for the statue’s American-made pedestal. She was a fourth-generation American whose Sephardic Jewish family was well established in New York.
Lazarus wrote poems and essays about violent pogroms against Jewish people overseas, and she became an advocate for Jews who came to the United States in the late 1800s, fleeing persecution in Europe and Russia.
“Ms. Lazarus not only insisted that American Jews come to the aid of Jewish refugees,” Esther Schor, a biographer of Lazarus and a professor of American Jewish studies at Princeton, wrote in a column for The New York Times. “She wrote ‘The New Colossus’ to argue that aiding the poor and oppressed of all lands was the mission of all Americans, the mission of America itself.”
Ms. Lazarus died in 1887; her poem was not affixed to the statue until 1903. It took years after that for the sonnet and the statue to meld in the popular imagination, but, with time, the figure that now towers more than 300 feet over Upper New York Bay came to be understood as the Mother of Exiles.
Citizenship and Immigration Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. But Mr. Cuccinelli did respond to the backlash during a Tuesday evening appearance on Fox News.
“All of the poetry discussion is a complete distraction, “ he said. “And that’s what it’s intended to be.”