Donald Trump’s immigration chief has suggested a poem etched onto the Statue of Liberty would better read as “Give me your tired and your poor – who can stand on their own two feet”, after the administration announced new hard-line rules for legal immigrants.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, defended the White House administration’s new rules that could limit legal immigration in an interview with NPR on Tuesday, saying: “It doesn’t seem like too much to ask to continue that tradition of inviting immigrants here who will not – essentially – go on welfare.” 

The rules announced on Monday would effectively make it easier for US immigration officials to deny visa and green card applications for legal immigrants who have used certain forms of government aid, including housing assistance, food stamps and most forms of Medicaid. 

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On Tuesday, NPR reporter Rachel Martin asked Mr Cuccinelli: “Would you also agree Emma Lazarus’ words etched on the Statue of Liberty – ‘give me your tired, your poor’ – are also part of the American ethos?”

“They certainly are,” he replied. “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.”

Emma Lazarus published the original poem, entitled “The New Colossus”, in 1883. It reads: 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!

States and activist groups swiftly announced intentions to sue over the new guidelines, which New York attorney general Letitia James described in a statement as “yet one more example of [Trump’s] administration turning its back on people fighting to make a better life for them and their families”. 

The acting immigration chief went on to describe America’s welfare system as “overburdened and bankrupt”, while suggesting the White House was only enforcing rules established under former president Bill Clinton. 

“America has generously opened its doors for many years and we continue to do so,” Mr Cuccinelli added. “It’s a privilege we’ve offered to people all around the world for the entire duration of our history, but that privilege starts with certain expectations.”

However, under Mr Clinton, federal guidance only weighed the use of cash benefits when determining the status of a visa application. The new rules expand what immigration officials will consider when determining whether an immigrant will pose a burden on the country, known as a “public charge”. 

Under Mr Trump, the guidelines require officials to look at whether green card applicants use assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme (Snap), and Section 8 housing vouchers – two commonly used programmes nationwide.

When announcing the new guidelines at the White House on Monday, Mr Cuccinelli was asked whether the plaque on the Statue of the Liberty should be removed.

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“Well I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” he responded. ”We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world, on a lot of bases.”

He added: “I do not think, by any means, we’re ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty.”

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