Ken Cuccinelli was not the first federal official to rewrite Emma Lazarus’s famous poem about the Statue of Liberty when he told an NPR interviewer that it should say, “Give me your tired and your poor who will stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.” Sixty-one years earlier, the junior senator from Massachusetts criticized restrictive immigration laws by writing that they amounted to: “Give me your tired, your poor…as long as they are from northern Europe, are not too tired or too poor or slightly ill, never stole a loaf of bread, never joined in any questionable organization, and can document their activities for the past few years.”
The arc from pro-immigrant John F. Kennedy in 1958 to Ken Cuccinelli in 2019 follows the changing attitudes among white Catholics descended from the poverty-stricken masses of yesteryear. Kennedy epitomizes those whose family history prompts a welcome; his vision helped inspire the 1965 law that reopened the golden door after decades of restriction. Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is an emblem for those who draw the opposite lesson from their ancestors’ stories. Asked who will be welcome in America on his watch, he told NPR’s Rachel Martin, “All immigrants who can stand on their own two feet, be self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps—again, as in the American tradition. My Italian-Irish heritage looks back at that. Most people in America look back at that.”
But the heroic struggle of Cuccinelli’s ancestors and millions of others to overcome discrimination doesn’t give their descendants a right to reinvent the nativist obstacles of the past. And yet Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general, is building his career as a hardliner on immigration.