On Wednesday, after President Donald Trump threw his support behind a bill targeting legal immigration, senior policy adviser Stephen Miller delivered a combative, at times flat-out angry press conference from the White House briefing room. Things got aggressive when Miller took questions from CNN's Jim Acosta, addressing the racial implications of the proposal, and invoking the familiar pro-immigration poem "The New Colossus," which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. In response, Miller suggested the Statue of Liberty poem was irrelevant, disputing the idea that it had anything to do with debate on immigration policy.
For the record, Miller is correct that the famed Emma Lazarus poem was not a part of the Statue of Liberty when it was first opened to the public in 1884. That didn't happen until 1903, when it was engraved on a bronze plaque inside the statue. The full poem is longer than the few lines that are most widely known, but those are the ones that tend to come up in the midst of political debates or conversations about immigration and humanitarianism. Written as if spoken by Liberty herself, they read as follows.
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!
Miller, for his part, seemed pretty unimpressed by the poem, or at least the idea that it had any relevance to the current conversation. The RAISE Act, co-authored by Republican senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue, would favor green card applicants who speak English and who're financially stable, a combination of factors that potentially could disproportionately slant the process in favor of applicants from predominantly white countries like Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
When Acosta questioned Miller about the Lazarus poem, and about whether the bill's new immigration priorities would be biased in favor of white applicants, he got a testy and eventually angry response from the 31-year-old White House adviser.
I don't want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty enlighting the world, it's a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem you're referring to, that was added later, is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.
When Acosta raised the issue of applicants from predominantly white countries getting a leg-up in the new proposal ― asking "are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?" ― Miller basically flew off the handle.
I am shocked at your statement that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It's actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree ― no, this is an amazing moment! This is an amazing moment ... Jim, have you never met an immigrant from another country who speaks English outside of Great Britain and Australia?
When Acosta replied, saying "of course" some immigrants from other countries know English, Miller interrupted him, shouting "but that's not what you said!"
"It sounds like you're trying to engineer the racial and ethnic flow of people into this country," Acosta shot back.
"Jim, that is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things you've ever said," Miller said.
It was, to put it mildly, about as hostile a scene as you're likely to see in a White House press briefing, over a proposed piece of legislation that's already being condemned by some progressives, and even Democratic officeholders, as racist and xenophobic. Illinois Democratic senator Dick Durbin, for example, tweeted as much following Trump's embrace of the bill.
It's worth noting amid all this tumult, however, that the bill is massively unlikely to pass. The GOP currently controls 52 seats in the Senate, but getting the RAISE Act to the floor would require 60 votes to break a Democratic filibuster.