Acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli went on CNN Tuesday evening. That morning, he’d given NPR his revision of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli said. (The actual text reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”) The revised version transforms the message from one of welcome to a kind of threat: Immigrants who can’t immediately find jobs or afford rent, food, and health insurance — or otherwise position themselves to boost America’s economy without delay — needn’t bother showing up.
Cuccinelli’s CNN appearance didn’t go any better. When asked to clarify his remarks to NPR, he claimed anchor Erin Burnett had twisted his words and declined to ask “substantive, intelligent” questions. He then suggested Lazarus was actually referring to immigrants from Europe in her poem, where the stigma attached to certain classes meant people could be considered “wretched” even if they weren’t that poor. “[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,” Cuccinelli explained.
In both appearances, Cuccinelli advanced the argument that immigrants who don’t enrich America don’t deserve America. This is a crucial distinction from the ideals expressed in Lazarus’s text, which explicitly references “exiles” and “homeless” people — groups that, by most definitions, would require some form of assistance before standing on their own. But it’s even more crucial when President Trump sets the terms of enrichment. Cuccinelli may rationalize the administration’s efforts by citing rules that let it bar immigrants who might become “public charges” — including, by dint of new revisions, those expected to use nonemergency Medicaid or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. But Trump has long made it clear which immigrants he thinks bring value: People from Norway are a boon, people from El Salvador and Guatemala are criminals, people from Iran and Iraq are potential terrorists, and Haiti and Africa are a collection of “shithole” countries, whose immigrants are less desirable than those from Scandinavia.
Even as Cuccinelli makes allowances for the impoverished masses flooding Ellis Island from Europe at the turn of the previous century, Trump has spent much of his campaign and presidency devising reasons why immigrants from Central America and other nonwhite-majority countries are different — reasons rooted in lies about the threats they pose to public safety and the economy, and concerns about how their presence might harm Republicans’ ability to win future elections. The resulting vision for America reimagines the Statue of Liberty not as a beacon for freedom but for the enhancement of a racist status quo and the empowerment of white Americans’ chosen political party. It also establishes the possession of capital as a precondition for entry. And for the president, one kind of capital trumps most others: that conferred by being white.
Cuccinelli is a fitting spokesman for this vision. As a Virginia state legislator and later attorney general, he fought to repeal birthright citizenship and force employees to speak English in the workplace. He has compared immigration policy to rat extermination and described Representative Steve King — an open white nationalist — as “one of [his] very favorite congressmen.” He now does the bidding of a like-minded president. Trump’s strategic reasons for inveighing against immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East are fairly straightforward: His political power hinges on galvanizing white voters who are overwhelmingly bigoted and inclined to blame people of color for their problems. About 60 percent of Trump’s supporters look unfavorably upon Muslims. Nearly half describe black people as more “violent” and “criminal” than white people. About 40 percent feel black people are lazier. Contrary to punditry suggesting that they were motivated by economic concerns, exit polling and research have demonstrated that immigration and terrorism topped Trump voters’ list of priorities, while fear of cultural displacement drove their support in 2016.
Trump has gleefully fanned these anxieties. He kicked off his campaign by calling the majority of Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, then vowed to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border to keep them out. After failing to launch construction on the wall while Republicans controlled Congress, he held hostage the paychecks of 800,000 federal workers to force the new Democratic majority to fund it (the Democrats didn’t cave; the wall remains unbuilt). He has continued to insist on the wall’s necessity — and that of voting Democrats out of office — by characterizing every group of migrants that advances through Central America and Mexico as disease-carrying gangsters and terrorists. And he hasn’t limited his vitriol to migrants. Crucial to his narrative of a noncitizen plague is affirming the dangers of undocumented people already present in the U.S. To that end, the administration has established an agency — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement — and a hotline for highlighting crimes committed by undocumented people.
Trump has paired these efforts with dire economic rhetoric. In February’s State of the Union address, he insisted that undocumented people are a drain on the livelihoods and tax dollars of everyday Americans. (Undocumented workers pay tens of billions of dollars in state and federal taxes each year, including income and property taxes.) And he has insisted on the need for a citizenship question on the 2020 Census — and defended the effort unsuccessfully before the U.S. Supreme Court — based on the belief, as outlined explicitly in GOP strategy documents, that doing so would lead to an undercount of Hispanic people and corresponding increase in the political power of white people, who are more likely to vote Republican.
There are plenty who still defend Trump and his administration against charges of being white supremacists. Foremost among them is Trump himself, but some members of conservate media are just as vocal — like Bill O’Reilly, who claimed recently that he “could not find one example of the president discussing skin color in a pejorative way or promoting Caucasian dominance,” and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who broadened the scope of this defense by claiming that white supremacy in general is a “hoax.” But the evidence says otherwise: Trump continues to decry undocumented migration from Central America, Mexico, Africa, and the Middle East, on the basis that immigrants from these countries constitute a diseased invasion of criminals, job thieves, moochers, and terrorists — despite far higher rates of white-supremacist terrorism stateside, years of declining undocumented immigration rates overall, and the fact that undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes while consuming vastly fewer welfare funds and having no meaningful impact on crime rates where they live. Meanwhile, his administration compares them unfavorably to immigrants from Europe, even those who arrived under similar circumstances at the turn of the last century, and who were similarly reviled in their day. Cuccinelli even suggests a new understanding of one of America’s most celebrated landmarks — the plaque welcoming immigrants from the base of the Statue of Liberty — to conform to this vision. If there’s a more accurate description for this behavior than “white supremacism,” it’s unclear what it is.