Ken Cuccinelli, Emma Lazarus, and Political Bias in the Media

No wonder voters don't trust news outlets

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 20, 2019

On August 18, 2019, pollster Scott Rasmussen asserted:

78% of voters say that what reporters do with political news is promote their agenda. They think they use incidents as props for their agenda rather than seeking accurately record [sic] what happened. Only 14% think that a journalist is actually reporting what happened.

A recent kerfluffle involving statements made by the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) gives a good example for why the faith of the American people in the popular media is so low.

On August 14, 2019, AP published an article detailing statements made by USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli headlined "Trump official: Statue of Liberty's poem is about Europeans". Of course, the poem in question is "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus, about which I have written previously.

Here's the meat of the AP article:

A top Trump administration official says the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, welcoming "huddled masses" of immigrants to American shores, was referring to "people coming from Europe" and that the nation is looking to receive migrants "who can stand on their own two feet."


Lazarus' poem, written in 1883 to raise money to construct the Statue of Liberty's pedestal and cast in bronze beneath the monument in 1903, served as a beacon to millions of immigrants who crossed past as they first entered the U.S. in New York Harbor. It reads, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

An inanimate object (a poem) can serve as a beacon? And can you really see the bronze rendering of that poem as you cross past the Statue of Liberty? Respectfully, my editor appears to be more of a stickler for details than the AP reporters' is.

That's really not the point, however. The "coming from Europe" is, as the headline of that article reveals, and as the rebukes to such an assertion in that article show:

The comments on Tuesday from Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, came a day after the Trump administration announced it would seek to deny green cards to migrants who seek Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. The move, and Cuccinelli's defense, prompted an outcry from Democrats and immigration advocates who said the policy would favor wealthier immigrants and disadvantage those from poorer countries in Latin America and Africa.

"This administration finally admitted what we've known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people," tweeted former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Democratic presidential candidate.

It should go without saying (but never does) that "The New Colossus" is not actually part of the immigration laws of the United States. But here is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the same article: "'Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty. They will not be replaced,' she tweeted. 'And I will fight for those values and for our immigrant communities.'"

I do not necessarily disagree with her on the values part, but if that is Warren's position, she can begin her fight in the Senate, where she controls 1 percent of the votes. That is 100 percent more than more than 300 million of her fellow citizens hold, a pretty good place to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act if you wanted to. As I often say in response to members of Congress and senators who oppose the immigration laws as currently written and enforced: "If you do not like the laws, then change them."

Cuccinelli made those statements on CNN on August 13, in an interview with Erin Burnett, about the recent public charge rule. Here is the exact exchange:

BURNETT: So I'm going to give you a substantive — OK, however it came up, you said give me your tired and your poor, OK, who can stand on their own two feet and you will not become a public charge. That's what you say.


BURNETT: I just played it. The poem reads, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of the teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door." Wretched, poor, refuse, that's what the poem says America supposed to stand for, so what do you think America stands for?

CUCCINELLI: 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. And it was introduced, it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written 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.

Same exact time, Erin. Same exact time. And the year it went on the Statue of Liberty, 1903, another federal law was passed expanding the elements of public charge by Congress. It's a essentially [sic] part of our heritage as Americans.

BURNETT: I mean when my family came here, they came here as crafters [sic] from Scotland. They had no education. They had nothing, but I am here because they were allowed in and I'm an anchor on CNN. So I'm just saying I wouldn't be here.

CUCCINELLI: Right. My Italian grandfather sponsored his two cousins to come here. This is a tradition that many of our families, yours and mine can point to. [Emphasis added.]

Look first at the context in which Cuccinelli's statements were made. As the excerpt suggests, this was not a straightforward interview, but rather a tendentious grilling by "an anchor on CNN" of a person whose opinions she apparently doesn't like very much.

To his credit, in the face of such an attack, Cuccinelli gave a cogent answer: "The New Colossus" "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." Does anybody deny that pre-World War I Europe was almost exclusively a series of "class-based societies"?

The important point in his statement is not that the values espoused in that poem only applied to people from Europe, or that it should apply only to people from Europe today, but that those very American values were different from those in the "old" world.

Support for Cuccinelli's assertion is found in the actual excerpt from Lazarus' poem to which Burnett referred, without citing the introductory line that frames the rest:

"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!" [Emphasis added.]

Look at the structure: It contrasts "storied pomp" of the old world from which the nineteenth-century immigrants came with their "new world," the United States. Read in context, this excerpt supports Cuccinelli's statements about the poem's contrast between class-based societies and American egalitarianism.

Lazarus herself almost definitely would have agreed. From her entry in the website "Biography" is the following:

In addition to writing, by the early 1880s, Emma Lazarus was speaking out against anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, and working with the Jewish refugees who immigrated to the United States at that time. She helped found the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York, in order to provide vocational training for new Jewish immigrants. She also spoke out in favor of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Respectfully, I don't care where Burnett's family came from, or what they did, any more than she should be interested in my family's history, Cuccinelli's (although he alluded to it nonetheless), or the president's (although I had to answer a question at a congressional hearing about the first lady's family, which was also irrelevant). Such statements are a form of bragging and snobbery: "My family worked with their hands and I'm on TEEVEE!" It does actually elucidate Cuccinelli's response, however. Does the movement of Burnett's family from Scottish crofters to CNN anchors make her any better or worse a person in the eyes of America, its law, and its values, than they were? That is an honest question that Cuccinelli's response implicitly answers, "No — we aspire to be a society of equals."

As importantly, however, most misty water-colored memories of the way family members were when they immigrated are often inaccurate (as I have previously explained), and really don't inform the public debate much except to inflame passions and shut down arguments about immigration enforcement. Did Erin Burnett's Scottish forebears receive public assistance? Were they public charges? If they were, that would at least make a point. She's not telling (likely because she has no idea).

I will note that the nineteenth-century paternalistic attitude of the fourth line in the excerpt of "The New Colossus" above is usually elided, but it wasn't by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who stated: "Emma Lazarus, wherever she is in heaven, has a lot to account for. They weren't the wretched refuse of anybody's shores." Truer words have never been spoken — they weren't then and they aren't now. Could you imagine if the president, Cuccinelli, or any other administration official had called immigrants "wretched refuse"?

Considering all of that, go back to the AP story at the beginning. Is it an accurate depiction of Cuccinelli's statement? I would answer "no." It leaves out the full excerpt of the operative part of the poem, and only provides the full quote of Cuccinelli's statement in the fifth paragraph, following this:

The administration's proposed policy shift comes as President Donald Trump is leaning more heavily into the restrictive immigration policies that have energized his core supporters and were central to his 2016 victory. He has also spoken disparagingly about immigration from majority black and Hispanic countries, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals when he launched his 2016 campaign. Last year, he privately branded Central American and African nations as "shithole" countries and he suggested the U.S. take in more immigrants from European countries like predominantly white Norway.

What do the cited statements from the president (or purportedly from the president, I have no idea what he says in private) have to do with the public-charge rule, which is a rule of neutral application as it relates to race, nationality, and ethnicity? Nothing, unless you accept the proposition that immigrants from certain countries are more likely to be public charges than other immigrants from other countries, which I do not, and which the article does not even attempt to support with facts or statistics.

And there is this, from the article's description of the acting USCIS director: "Cuccinelli was a failed Republican candidate for governor in 2013 after serving as the state's attorney general. He backed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas for president in 2016 and for a time was a harsh critic of Trump."

"[F]ailed Republican candidate for governor?" Why is there no reference to Beto O'Rourke being a "failed Democratic candidate for Senate (against the aforementioned Sen. Ted Cruz, nonetheless)?"

This all goes to a larger point. There was a time when the public took CNN anchors and AP reporters at their word, and assumed that there was no political spin to their stories, because they were (or appeared to be) objective. When you look deeply at what they report, though, that benefit of the doubt can all too often be eroded. It is no wonder that Scott Rasmussen, as noted, found "78% of voters say that what reporters do with political news is promote their agenda."

This is not good for the commonweal. The people are too busy to sift through 136-year-old poems and week-old broadcast transcripts to get to the truth about critical issues of the day. That said, all of this — AP, Lazarus, and Burnett — are just a sideshow to the larger public-charge issue: More than 150 million foreign nationals would immigrate to the United States if they got the chance. With this in mind, should immigrants to the United States be expected to support themselves and their families, without relying on the American taxpayer for "Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance"? To ask the question is to answer it.

Perhaps that's why the sideshow gets the attention.