Immigration Chief: 'Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor Who Can Stand on Their Own 2 Feet'

8 min
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Monday at the White House that immigrants legally in the U.S. may no longer be eligible for green cards if they use food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said Tuesday, twisting Emma Lazarus's famous words on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

Cuccinelli was speaking to NPR's Rachel Martin about a new regulation he announced Monday that targets legal immigration. The rule denies green cards and visas to immigrants if they use — or are deemed likely to need — federal, state and local government benefits including food stamps, housing vouchers and Medicaid. The change stands to impact hundreds of thousands of immigrants who come to the United States legally every year.

The final version of the "public charge" rule is scheduled to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register. A public charge refers to a person who relies on public assistance for help. That includes more than 20% of all Americans, according to a 2015 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau.

On Tuesday, Cuccinelli described the public charge as a "burden on the government." He told NPR the new regulation was "part of President Trump keeping his promises."

The new rule will go into effect Oct. 15, and only government aid used after that point will be assessed, Cuccinelli said.

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Welfare benefits will be just one factor that immigration service officers use to determine an applicant's fate in the United States, in addition to age, health, education and financial status.

"If they don't have future prospects of being legal permanent residents without welfare, that will be counted against them," Cuccinelli said.

"All immigrants who can stand on their own two feet, self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps," would be welcome, he added.

Asked if that changes the definition of the American Dream, Cuccinelli said, "No one has a right to become an American who isn't born here as an American."

Then he clarified. "It is a privilege to become an American, not a right for anybody who is not already an American citizen. That's what I was referring to."

He said the welcoming words from the 1903 plaque at the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor," were put there "at almost the same time" as when the first public charge law was passed — in 1882.

Critics have denounced the rule as a sweeping attempt to stem immigration and favor wealthy migrants. The regulation is expected to be challenged by immigration groups in court.

Leon Fresco, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, said the case could wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I also expect lawsuits from individuals who say that, at the end of the day, if Congress provided certain benefits to be accessible by certain groups of immigrants, that meant that they did not want them then banned under the public charge rule," Fresco told NPR.

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Rumors that the Trump administration was considering the regulation has already led to a chilling effect on immigrants looking to put down roots through legal and permanent residency. Public health and social service providers report that immigrants are worried about seeking medical and housing aid for themselves and their children, who may be U.S. citizens.

Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, has long held a hard-line stance against immigration and asylum policies. President Trump tapped him to be the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in June, bringing him to the helm of an agency he had never worked in.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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