(CNN) - Ken Cuccinelli tried to rewrite the gracious poem on base of the Statue of Liberty Tuesday, telling NPR that a new regulation under President Donald Trump would make immigrants more self-sufficient.
"Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus's words etched on the Statue of Liberty, 'Give me your tired, give me your poor,' are also a part of the American ethos?" NPR's Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli on "Morning Edition" in an interview published Tuesday.
"They certainly are: 'Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,'" he replied, altering the entire point of the poem.
It actually 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, Iift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Cuccinnelli, the nation's top immigration official and acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, also pointed out that the "public charge" law on which the Trump administration is basing new immigration policy was written the year before that poem.
He tried to offer a history lesson Monday to argue that legal immigrants from poor parts of the world aren't being targeted by the new rules disqualifying them from green cards if they seek public assistance.
"This is 140-year-old legal structure," he said. "We're dealing with the most recent iteration of it, but this is not new. This was -- the same question might have been asked when my Italian immigrants were coming, immigrant ancestors were coming in and all through that 140 years. So we're -- we're not doing anything new here, we're simply making effective what Congress had already put on the books. So there's no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them. This will apply across the world."
What he was referring to is a law Congress passed many generations ago -- the Immigration Act of 1882. And as Cuccinelli said, the language of that law allowed immigration authorities at US ports to root out anyone they felt was a "convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge."
It was through that language that women and children not accompanied by a man, people suspected of being gay or lesbian, the deaf and others were barred entry. The law was expanded in the early 20th century to extend to anyone who, for a reason that existed before entering the US, became a "public charge" within five years.
But these cases accounted for a very small percentage of immigrants more than 100 years ago.
"The United States has a long history of limiting or outright excluding people based on what the government deemed undesirable," said Michael Innis-Jiménez, an professor of American studies at the University of Alabama. "This undesirability was based on race, nationality or any number of reasons the government classified as a 'defect.' These were the people who could not enter the United States legally."
The laws, which have their roots in rules set up during the Colonial era, long predate the federally funded social safety net of public assistance to help the elderly and the poor that Trump is now closing off to prospective immigrants.
The Trump administration has different immigration values than previous administrations. It's undertaken an aggressive effort to cut down on legal as well as illegal immigration. It's ended long-standing refugee programs called Temporary Protected Status for some countries that could force hundreds of thousands of people who have lived in the US for decades to leave. It's cut down on the number of refugees admitted through regular channels. It's tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, by which President Barack Obama gave temporarily relief to some undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. It's instituted a travel ban on certain countries that no longer specifically targets majority-Muslim nations, but did at its inception. It's slowed the green card process and reopened closed deportation cases and denied H-1B visas to professional workers.
This new rule reinterprets the past in the aim of further lowering legal immigration. But in key ways, the laws of earlier eras were patently racist and singled out specific groups of people, like women, Jews and people from India. It was not a fair system.
The same year Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1882, it did target an ethnic group when it cut off Chinese immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act, despite Chinese American contributions to the development of the Western US and to the construction of the transcontinental railroad.
Some of the xenophobic rhetoric behind that law, which included that Chinese threatened US culture, would not sound strange coming out of President Donald Trump's mouth when he warns about threats to US culture.
It was a party reversal back then, with Republicans arguing for free immigration and many Democrats favoring exclusion, according to an official State Department history.
That 1882 law restricting Chinese immigration was only the beginning of ugly US laws aimed at the Chinese and other Asian subgroups. They remained in place until 1943.
In a report filed as a public comment against the new Department of Homeland Security rule, a group of historians noted that the system has evolved over time and in light of subsequent laws and court decisions. Some states have tried to strip benefits from immigrants but were denied by courts. Other states have sought to give immigrants some benefits when they are not eligible for federal assistance.
In the 1970s Congress cut off unauthorized immigrants from most benefits and did it again in 1996, with the support of President Bill Clinton, as part of refashioning the welfare system. However, legal immigrants have always had some level of access to aid when they needed it.
Some of the historians who signed the report objecting to Trump's change to the law wrote in The Washington Post when it was first suggested last year that when more than a million legal immigrants were entering the country each year in the early 20th century, very few were denied entry or deported using this reasoning. They examined the year 1916 and, of more than 1 million legal immigrants that year, found that fewer than 12,000 had been either denied entry or deported for being a "public charge."
Torrie Hester, Mary Mendoza, Deirdre Moloney and Mae Ngai wrote that Congress at that time specifically recognized that people who live in the US create roots and families and that deporting them should not be undertaken lightly.
"Our immigration public-charge policy has always recognized two principles: first, the nation's desire for immigrants who are able-bodied and employable, capable of supporting themselves and their families; and second, our commitment to assist members of our communities who fall on hard times," they wrote, arguing that the rule "flies in the face of these long-held values."