No government in the world has America’s proud history of having openly welcomed the poor and downtrodden to its shores. Inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the most prominent symbol of immigration’s contribution to American greatness, are the very words of poet Emma Lazarus that advertise this safe haven:
“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!”
Now the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, proposes a slight editing change to slam that golden door shut: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Speaking on National Public Radio on Tuesday, Cuccinelli was trying to justify a new Trump administration “public charge” rule that threatens to cancel any consideration of legal residency to immigrants if they have low incomes or little education and contemplate accessing aid programs such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing vouchers.
America’s welcome mat is only for those who can demonstrate that they won’t need government help in the future, Cuccinelli says. But those who uproot themselves under duress to make a home in any new country typically arrive with little or nothing to their names.
We know of one man who escaped a Middle Eastern war with his family and arrived in the United States with only $185 to his name. Yes, he needed some temporary assistance upon arrival here, but today he is a millionaire. Another crossed the southern border from Mexico nearly penniless and worked illegally as a waiter and cook in Texas. Today he and his family – now citizens – own three high-end restaurants.
The nation’s history is rife with examples of newly arrived immigrants who transformed their poverty into stories of success. The founding publisher of St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joseph Pulitzer, was one such person. He arrived in St. Louis nearly penniless aboard a rail freight car and survived by selling his sole possession, a white handkerchief, for 75 cents.
President Donald Trump’s own grandfather arrived in this country so sickly he was feared unfit for manual labor. Under this administration’s new rules, Frederick Trump probably would not have qualified for the legal permanent residency and ultimate citizenship that paved the way for his grandson’s financial and political success.
Arriving on these shores with minimal means of support is not, to paraphrase investment-house disclaimers, an indication of future performance. But in Donald Trump’s America, only the already successful need apply. That’s not just a sad statement on his callous disregard of his own heritage, it underscores how little history Trump has bothered to study about the immigrant stories of triumph over adversity that made this country great.