In an effort to drape an ugly agenda in patriotism, yet another white nationalist from Trump’s administration has lied to re-write the ideals to which America aspires. White nationalism espouses the belief that white people are a race and seeks to develop a white national identity and to maintain a white nation. Just like Hitler and the Nazis1, the Trump administration has covertly tried to redefine America’s principles, symbols, and history, along with its demographics. They say, “Make America Great Again”, but they mean “Make America Something Else”, i.e., a white nationalist state2.
Ken Cuccinelli serves as the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services for the Trump administration. On August 13, 2019, he spoke with NPR’s Rachel Martin to explain, or more accurately, defend, a new immigration rule aimed at punishing poor, legal immigrants. That led to this exchange:
MARTIN: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’ words etched on the Statue of Liberty – give me your tired, your poor – are also part of the American ethos?
CUCCINELLI: They certainly are – give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge. That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed – very interesting timing.
Later that day on CNN, Cuccinelli opined that Emma Lazarus’ poem referred to “people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”
So, a Trump lackey falsely presented the history of the Statue of Liberty and the poem to suit the administration’s racist immigration agenda. Sound familiar? It has happened before. In August 2017 CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Stephen Miller if the Trump administration’s merit-based green card proposal was in keeping with U.S. tradition and cited Lazarus’ poem. Like Cuccinelli, Miller responded by twisting the history of the poem and the statue, “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.” Miller also said the statue is a “symbol of American liberty lighting the world” and suggested it had nothing to do with immigrants. Just like Cuccinelli, Miller both oversimplified and omitted facts.
The Real History
Time to set the record straight. Again. The Statue of Liberty is also called Liberty Enlightening the World, not, despite Cuccinelli and Miller’s statements and goals, Liberty Enlightening Europe, or Liberty Enlightening a Select Few Independently Wealthy White Folks in Europe. The French conceived of the statue as a celebration of liberty and freedom, inspired by the freeing of the slaves after the American Civil War. The newly freed slaves were poor people, largely without property or resources, often lacking training in high-value skillsets or trades, looked upon as the “other” and racially inferior, discriminated against, and, definitely not white or European. Contrary to how Miller or Cucinelli would have us view things, the statue commemorates the abolition of slavery and the welcoming of those people into American citizenship. Liberty literally strides across a broken shackle and chain at her feet as she lifts up her lamp, extending freedom and equality to all, no exceptions.
In addition to her torch, Liberty also bears a tabula ansata, a symbol of the concept of law. However, the tablet does not reference the obvious representation of U.S. law, the hallowed Constitution. Instead it bears the date of the Declaration of Independence, signaling that the Statue of Liberty also symbolizes the important values of: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Thus, from the outset, we know the statue’s symbology was not about restrictive views of who should and should not have rights or be deemed American.
Then we come to the poem. The statue project was announced in 1875 and was intended as a joint French-U.S. effort, with the U.S. raising money for the statue’s creation and installation. Americans organized several fundraising events for that purpose. Enter Emma Lazarus, a member of a wealthy Jewish family which had been in New York since before the American Revolution.
In the 1880s, Lazarus became more interested in her Jewish ancestry and was moved by the plight of the Eastern European Jews fleeing to America to escape pogroms. As part of a huge surge of non-Protestant immigrants, those Jewish refugees left their homes not because they were born in the “wrong”3 class, but rather because their nations persecuted them, stole their land, destroyed their property, and killed them for no other reason other than their religion and ethnicity. They often had few possessions and limited means by which to make their way in the United States. Recognizing that many were not able to be self-supporting without additional aid, Lazarus helped establish a school for vocational training to assist Jewish immigrants. She also advocated on behalf of indigent Jewish refugees that came to America.
In 1883, inspired by her work with Russian Jewish immigrants, Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” specifically for a Statue of Liberty fundraiser. Lazarus’ words clearly indicate that even before funding for the great work was complete, the statue had come to symbolize not just Liberty as a light to the world and abolition of slavery, but also the promise of immigrant refuge and opportunity, regardless of skillsets or ability to support oneself without aid.
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!”
Before the statue was erected, the poem has it specifically inviting to America “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore”, i.e., the lowly, the ones who won’t pass some merit-based litmus test, who may not be self-supporting. It also told the merit-based folks, the “storied pomp”, they could stay back home. Contrary to Cuccinelli’s declaration, the poem clearly refutes the idea of only accepting those “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
The Statue of Liberty was dedicated in October 1886. Miller was correct that the Statue of Liberty did not acquire the plaque containing the words of “The New Colossus” until 1903. However, the history of the statue and the poem obviously fused long before that moment.
And that history includes the non-whites. It’s not just the broken shackle and chain at Liberty’s feet. It’s also the Jewish immigrants who inspired Lazarus’ lyric words. In the wake of Eastern European Jewish immigration, antisemitism in the U.S. was on the rise in the 1880s. That antisemitism did not merely rest on bigotry over a non-Christian religion. It also firmly believed that Jews were biologically predisposed to be financial exploiters, morally inferior, less intelligent, and sub-human. In other words, regardless of skin color, place of origin, financial success or standing in society, Jews were not considered white. “The New Colossus”, with its “world-wide welcome”, includes the non-white world in its invitation, not just Europeans of the “wrong class” as Cuccinelli would have us believe.
Even Cuccinelli’s assumptions regarding European immigration misrepresent the realities of the time. The poem dates back to the Gilded Age, when the United States clearly also had a class system. Immigrants were not fleeing the class system, but rather their circumstances, such as poverty and persecution. Despite the likelihood of living on the difficult side of the class and cultural systems in the U.S., most faced worse prospects if they stayed in Europe.
White Nationalists at the Top
Cucinnelli, Miller, and others like them in Trump’s administration keep trying to contort American ideals and symbols to sanction their bigotry. They cannot justify the unjustifiable, so instead they try to convince America that its ideals have always stood for the corrupt white nationalist views this administration seeks to advance. The Statue of Liberty is a continuing target for their efforts precisely because it is such a potent beacon of freedom and acceptance of all people–because it symbolizes everything they do not believe in. As American demographics continue to shift toward a non-white majority citizenry, the administration would like nothing more than to frustrate and deny that process, and to frame that incipient majority as illegitimate and un-American. And no wonder: the list of administration officials responsible for inventing and implementing those efforts reads like the invitation list to David Duke’s birthday party.
Stephen Miller, for example, currently serves as a senior advisor for policy and speechwriter for President Trump. His fingerprints are all over Trump’s travel ban, the denial of asylum seekers and refugees, the zero-tolerance child separation policy, and most of the administration’s other anti-immigration efforts, all of which are about getting rid of brown people.
Miller is a white nationalist. He was born Jewish, but he apparently didn’t get the memo that, under his chosen ideology, when push comes to shove, he’s not considered white. Back in his college days, Miller was associated with Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist who provoked a national debate on whether it was okay to actually punch Nazis when a masked man slugged him during Trump’s inauguration. Miller’s own uncle said that Miller’s immigration policies would have doomed the family’s Jewish refugee ancestors to death in pogroms. Referring specifically to Miller’s immigration agenda against people of color, Andrew Anglin of the Nazi website Daily Stormer called Miller, “the last person in the White House that has any sense.”
Ken Cuccinelli’s history likewise sends up racist red flags. For example, in 2012, as Attorney General of Virginia, Cuccinelli went on a conservative show called The Morning Majority. In discussing Washington, D.C.’s pest control, he stated, “It is worse than our immigration policy. You can’t break up rat families. Or raccoons, and all the rest, and you can’t even kill ‘em.” Now, like Miller, Cuccinelli sits inside the White House, one of the physical manifestations of our national ideals, vandalizes those ideals until they are unrecognizable, and then attempts to sell them back to us as pristine originals.
Trump himself has no problem with his advisors’ white nationalist views or tactics. Trump has openly displayed his own racism for decades, from discrimination against black tenants, to his treatment of the Central Park Five, his insults toward Mexicans and Muslims… the list is vast. Just recently, Trump’s tweets telling four congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from were objectively racist. When asked whether he had any concern that white nationalists saw his comments as supportive of their ideology, Trump said he didn’t, because plenty of people agreed with him. And like his advisors, Trump twists American history to support his white supremacy. For example, Trump venerates President Andrew Jackson, known for his persecution of the nation’s indigenous people, by placing his portrait prominently in the White House. Trump even made Navajo Code Talkers accept honors under Jackson’s gaze.
Like Miller and Cuccinelli, Trump uses the fact that Jackson was a president to wrap both Jacksons’ and Trump’s racism in a false veneer of historical and symbolic legitimacy. In so doing, Trump’s administration gives permission for numerous white supremacists and racists to come out of the closet and pretend at patriotism by dressing in the false finery made from the administration’s distorted take on American ideals. The administration champions policies targeting non-whites, which do not benefit Americans in general and frequently do harm to all instead. The administration assaults this country’s history and symbols in an effort to create the illusion of a rationalization for these policies, because no legitimate rationale actually exists.
The ICE Raids in Mississippi
Trump’s administration has enacted white nationalist policies in America’s name. Torchlight Media previously discussed some of those policies and how they harm immigrants and this nation alike. Most recently the administration delivered yet another one-two punch to immigrants in this country.
First, ICE conducted massive raids on illegal immigrants employed at food processing plants in Mississippi, in which they detained 680 people. Over the past two years, ICE has conducted a campaign targeting immigrants seeking to work hard and live their lives, rather than those who are actual safety threats, such as violent criminals. At the start of Trump’s administration, his then-head of ICE vowed to increase worksite enforcement by 400%, a goal which it had largely reached within one fiscal year. Since then, immigrant communities have lived in constant fear of actual or threatened ICE operations.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi employers face no punishment whatsoever for their illegal hiring practices. While such prosecutions have always been few, they have become even more rare under the current administration. A Syracuse University study found that from April 2018 to March 2019, the government prosecuted no employing corporations, and only 11 individual employers, of which only three received prison sentences. In contrast, the government prosecuted 85,000 immigrant workers over the same period. Two of the companies raided, PECO Foods and Koch Foods4 contributed thousands to a chicken PAC which spent 85% of its money in support of House and Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell. In addition, Koch Foods agreed to a $3.75 million settlement last year to resolve an EEOC lawsuit brought on behalf of its workers for sexual and racial discrimination. Yet it is the workers who have been locked up.
Coincidentally or, more likely, by design, the recent raids also took place on the first day of school. ICE broke with normal federal policy by arresting people first and then contacting the schools regarding their children. Child Protection Services and locals scrambled to help children who returned to locked homes with no news of where their parents were or when they might return. ICE eventually let some parents go to take care of their children, and by noon the following day 300 of the 680 arrested had been released. However, days later, Child Protective Services indicated that some children still had not yet been reunited with a parent. The raids also left many children afraid to go to school.
The raids seem first and foremost to have been timed and executed to strike maximum terror. And as a result, fear has in fact taken hold among people of color, particularly in Latinx communities. It’s bad enough that children fear going to school and have suffered lasting emotional trauma. The raids also invoked memories of the administration’s child-separation policy, leaving detainees to wonder where their children were, how they were being cared for, if they had been seized, and whether the parents would ever see them again. People are also worrying for their jobs, their continued livelihoods, their families’ welfare, and their own safety.
The raids took place on the same day Trump awkwardly “comforted” El Paso in the wake of a white supremacist’s mass shooting designed to murder and terrorize Latinx people. The optics of the timing were horrible, but ICE excused the action by saying it had planned the raids for months. If so, one imagines they could have waited.
Whether deliberate or not, the coinciding of the raids with Trump’s visit to El Paso served to further heighten a series of completely reasonable Latinx anxieties. Some racist with a gun might come and kill them at any time or place. At any moment, the U.S. government might rip them away from their family without a word and send them back to a land so terrifying that they work in America in terrible conditions for lousy wages rather than return of their own volition. Nor do they know what horrors may await them in U.S. custody. Immigrants have gone on hunger strikes to protest detention conditions, actions which have allegedly been met with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. The Latinx communities have every reason to feel under siege.
It has also been clear to other Americans that ICE’s goal was to terrorize. After the raids, an Anne Frank quote describing scarily similar actions by Hitler’s Nazis went viral: “Terrible things are happening outside… poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes. Families are torn apart; men, women and children are separated. Children come home from school to find that their parents have disappeared.”
"Terrible things are happening outside... poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes. Families are torn apart; men, women and children are separated. Children— Anne Frank Center (@AnneFrankCenter) April 6, 2019
come home from school to find that their parents have disappeared." - Anne Frank (Jan 13, 1943) pic.twitter.com/0BYYyzdPXG
The Public Charge Rule
After the raids came punch number two, the new regulation about which Cuccinelli spoke this past week, which is aimed at frightening legal immigrants and further terrifying people of color. The regulation would deny green cards and visas, or their renewal, to legal immigrants if they are judged to rely too much on federal aid, including food stamps or Medicaid. The rule would deny based not just on the immigrants’ current use of the programs, but on what the administration predicts that use might be in the future, despite the lack of any proven government track record with crystal balls.
Because this rule has been threatened since 2017, it has already had a chilling effect on legal immigrants seeking assistance. Which means it has also prevented U.S. citizens, many of whom are children living in households with noncitizens, from receiving food and health care aid to which they are legally entitled. The change will most likely significantly curtail legal immigration, as families made up of legal immigrants, DACA recipients, and U.S. citizens change their behavior out of fear of being ripped apart.
The Migration Policy Institute estimated that the number of legal immigrants labeled a public charge would rise from 3% to 47% under the 2018 draft of the new rule. Some predict that as many as half of all marriage green card applicants, i.e., those married to U.S. citizens, could be denied green cards as a result of the rule. The only way a family of five can avoid judgement is if it earns 250% above the poverty line, or $73,550. Even highly skilled immigrants, like the ones the administration claims it wants, are not likely to generate incomes sufficient to guarantee their status.
The regulation likely will affect the United States in unexpected ways. Even the libertarian, Koch-funded think tank Cato Institute5 predicts loss of economic growth and tax revenue due to the exclusion of immigrants. The public charge change will negatively impact industries largely fueled by immigrant labor, such as the agricultural sector. The National Association for Home Care and Hospice already notes a lack of home care workers and expects the situation to worsen under the new rule. Even more infuriating, many of those workers require government assistance and are therefore likely to be penalized, because the government, through Medicaid, sets their pay rates at below a living wage. As America’s elderly population continues to grow, the loss to the home care industry will affect us all.
Under the new rule changes, immigrants will find themselves terrorized whether they enter legally or illegally. Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, summed up the regulation as “a cruel new step toward weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: You are not welcome here.”
The Punitive Rule Lacks Rational Justification
Ken Cuccinelli justified this white nationalist policy by claiming it is simply a continuation of past ideals. In addition to mangling the meaning of “The New Colossus”, he lied about the history of prior laws relating to immigration and who is considered a public charge. Professor Kunal Parker of the University of Miami School of Law spoke to NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly to clarify the laws Cuccinelli relied upon.
PARKER: So the law that was passed in 1882 excluded from entry into the United States, quote, “any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” And that language has been a feature of federal immigration law ever since.…
KELLY: So did this law then sit there on the books for the next century or so, or has it been modified and changed over the years?
PARKER: So the law has been on the books, and it was also applied, right? But the point is that it was applied in ways that might be a little bit different from the ways in which Mr. Cuccinelli is thinking about it, which is that it is true that immigration officials would exclude people whom they thought were likely to be public charges. This usually involves checking whether an entering immigrant had cash or whether they were ill, you know, whether they looked like they would turn to assistance, right? But it’s important to keep in mind that this was before the rise of the modern welfare states.
KELLY: You’re saying the very way we think about what would count as a public charge has changed dramatically in all those years.
PARKER: Particularly if you think about what the proposed rule is going to target, it includes things like general welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, the earned income tax credit. None of this stuff was around then.
KELLY: So I want to focus us in on one particular year, 1996, because Ken Cuccinelli also referenced that year, and he referenced a law from that year in our interview with him this morning…What is the 1996 law that he’s talking about?
PARKER: So in 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act which was a massive overhaul of the welfare system. Essentially, what the law provided was that most legal immigrants were going to be ineligible to receive a range of benefits for the first five years of U.S. residence. What Mr. Cuccinelli might not have mentioned – I’m not sure – is that many of those benefits were reinstated in 2002. Also what the new Trump rule is targeting is obviously things like Obamacare subsidies, which weren’t in existence in 1996.
KELLY: Right. And to fact-check one other thing that Mr. Cuccinelli told us, he said most Americans get that this is the way this country has worked for the last 140 years, that people entering the U.S. should not enter and then become a burden on American taxpayers and the government. Is that historically accurate? Is that the way…
KELLY: …Public opinion trended in the 19th century?
PARKER: No, it’s not.
Cuccinelli argues that the old 19th century public charge law regarding immigration provides historical support for his present-day exclusion of people of color. It does not. Nor does the 1996 public charge law he also cited. First: Cucinelli confused coincidence for causation when he linked 1882 and 1903 immigration laws to Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem and the Statue of Liberty’s 1903 plaque. Second: Cuccinelli also ignores that, in the 19th century, in 1996, and on through the present, the usual meaning of becoming a public charge is to be completely dependent on assistance, rather than only needing some help. If the latter definition was used, very few immigrants from Eastern Europe could have entered the country in the 1880s. Quite possibly, neither could have Cuccinelli’s great-grandfather, a laborer from southern Italy with no education.
Third: Professor Kumal also brought up a very important distinction. Cuccinelli’s rule targets government assistance programs, none of which existed when discussing public charge in 1882. Not until the double blow of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl turned the faults of our economic system into chasms did the U.S. government create federal social programs. Since then, the programs have generally offered temporary or supplemental assistance, not the complete dependency that would make an individual a public charge.
Our country’s policies clearly do not view such government aid as shameful, even if some people in our culture do. The nation has made a bargain: aid to those in dire need, for their sake and for everyone else’s. Poverty negatively impacts society, drives crime up, and reduces the overall physical and mental health of the populace. Reducing poverty by providing some support here and there, such as assistance with food, housing or healthcare, actually helps everyone. Federal assistance programs keep millions of Americans, from the very young to the very old, out of poverty. As a result, these programs are just as important and beneficial for legal and illegal immigrants as they are for born citizens.
The public charge provisions of the 1996 law were aimed at those who became primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Those receiving benefits that supplemented their conditions, such as food stamps, or housing assistance, have historically not been viewed as public charges. The federal government also limited the types of aid considered for public charge purposes to cash benefits or institutionalization for long-term care. The government recognized that extending the consideration to non-cash benefits would result in deterring immigrants from seeking such things as health care, which in turn would threaten public health and security in general.
Contrary to Cuccinelli’s portrayal of the new rule as in keeping with historical traditions, the new rule instead massively shifts prior policy, in that it counts any form of aid as being proof of dependence. In the past, receiving a little help in buying groceries because someone’s job paid them poverty wages was never considered being primarily dependent on the government. The new rule change would consider that grounds to prevent legal residency.
Why does Trump’s white nationalist administration always spread the lie that its new policies are continuations of honored American history, ideals, and symbolism? Because these men can offer no justification for their bigotry in the present, so they try to manufacture it by warping America’s past. Cuccinelli and co. never bothered to mention that, since 1996, legal immigrants cannot even receive the kinds of public benefits the rule targets until five years after arrival in this country. When immigrants do become eligible, they use government assistance at lower rates and in smaller amounts than native-born Americans. Far from being a drain on resources, legal immigrants have already proven quick to “stand on their own two feet.” Trump’s administration can offer no factual rationalization for this law; it is motivated by nothing but naked racism, and racism is always a fallacious viewpoint that twists reality to serve its own purposes.
We have been here again and again. Despite the fractured fairy tale of history and legal interpretation that Cuccinelli, Miller, and others offer, the real purpose of these measures has always been to terrorize immigrants, both legal and illegal, and in the process, to suppress and destroy communities of color. All to sustain the myth of a white nation and a white national identity that has never truly existed.
Media and punditry need to connect the dots and start consistently admitting what is happening. Those who already do are not editorializing or moralizing. They are reporting. The president and his top advisors are white nationalists and racists. Our government is enacting the policies of white nationalism—a slow-motion ethnic cleansing. It really is that simple and that clear.
Since the fall of the Third Reich, Americans have asked themselves, “Could it happen here?” Wonder no more. We have been living the answer since January 20, 2017.
Emma Lazarus wrote a poem to fund a statue built to display American ideals for all the world to see. In doing so, she chose not to describe Liberty as a light only to be viewed from afar or something offered only to whites or the “right sort”. Lazarus rejected the image of the “brazen giant of Greek fame”, and instead described Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles,” offering “world-wide welcome” to the “refuse” other nations rejected. The poem does not limit those who may seek her by the color of their skin, fluency in English, education level, money in their pockets, job skills, or any other such triviality. Rather it urges any “yearning to breathe free” to come. This administration’s white nationalist immigration policies target those exact same people and desecrates our past to justify doing so.
America needs to push back against this defilement. Even more importantly, it needs to recommit to the original ideals and symbolism and work harder to be the land of welcome and true liberty for all that both the Statue of Liberty and “The New Colossus” urge it to be.
Ann Anderson is a contributing writer for Torchlight and, when time permits, for her own blog on social and political topics, Strigiforms.com. She has a familiarity with the legal profession, history, and an eclectic potpourri of informational tidbits. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For example, Kamenetsky, Christa. “Folklore as a Political Tool in Nazi Germany.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 85, no. 337, 1972, pp. 221–235, JSTOR; and Imer, Lisbeth, “How the Nazis Abused the History of Runes,” Science Nordic (Oct. 13, 2018).
- Obviously, the U.S. has a racist history that does not end with slavery. The KKK once enjoyed great popularity and marched openly and in force in Washington, DC. Lynchings and voter suppression of black Americans were commonplace. America struggles with systemic racism to this day. In the past, nativist movements lead to immigration restrictions. However, despite its history, this country’s ideals have stood for equality for all; America has never aspired to be a white nationalist state. Nor does the Trump administration usually try to invoke any of that negative history in support of its policies.
- Even Cuccinelli’s choice of words regarding class reveals a view at odds with the statue and the poem’s symbolism. Instead of referencing levels of class or defining class by social or economic hierarchies, he divided it into “right” and “wrong”, because, as a white nationalist, he sees the world as a division between those who are acceptable and those who are not.
- Koch Foods has no relation to the Koch brothers.
- Unrelated to Koch Foods.