The little boy was warned: SSHHH! He, his sisters and his parents were hiding from the guys with badges. They were stowing away in a train car, sneaking across the U.S. border — hoping to begin living their new American dream.
Luckily, they made it. They got across the U.S. border undetected. They had little money and just the few possessions they could carry on the run. But they got into the USA before President Donald Trump and his acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, could implement their new immigration rule.
The Trump-Cuccinelli rule, announced Monday, was drafted to assure that others seeking to pursue the dreams of the little boy’s poor family won’t be able to remain in the USA legally.
That’s a reality Cuccinelli made clear this week – and in the process, he also made it clear he sees himself as Trump’s acting-poet laureate. On Tuesday, a National Public Radio interviewer asked Cuccinelli if the “American ethos” still includes poet Emma Lazarus’s iconic words that are etched into the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,/ The wretched refuse of your teaming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me...”
“They certainly are,” Cuccinelli said. But then he spontaneously rewrote the famous French poet’s words to give them an entirely new meaning that would seem to validate his claim: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet. And who will not become a public charge.”
Under the new Trump rule, no immigrants will be admitted to work in the United States if they seem likely to “become a public charge” — which, frankly, is what happened in real life to the little boy and his family. We know this because the train on which that boy and his family stowed away entered the United States not by crossing the Mexican border, but by crossing the Canadian border — and it happened more than eight decades ago. The boy’s parents originally came to Canada from Byelorussia. And they definitely were poor; they lived in poverty in the Bronx, New York. For years, the boy’s life was a series of tragedies: he was still a child when his father fell from a scaffold and died; four of his five sisters also died. He contracted a serious illness that crippled his legs – and was hospitalized as a charity patient. It took him years to recover.
The boy was Abe Rosenthal, who went on to have a legendary career at The New York Times. He earned a Pulitzer Prize as a correspondent, became the executive editor and led the newspaper through tumultuous times. In 2002, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. In his last column for the Times, Rosenthal ended by writing: “I thank God for ...making me an American citizen.”
You won’t find this story of how Abe really got to the USA in his official Times bio or in his 2006 Times obituary. But Abe told it to me one night as we sat in a bar along some presidential campaign trail long ago.
On Tuesday, Abe’s old newspaper reported Trump’s new immigration rule at the top right corner of page one: “POLICY LETS U.S. REJECT THE POOR FOR GREEN CARDS.”
The Times reported Trump’s rule change was “targeting legal immigrants who want to remain in the United States but whose lack of financial resources are judged likely to make them a burden on taxpayers. ...Poor immigrants will be denied permanent legal status, also known as a green card, if they are deemed likely to use government benefit programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing.”
Even if Abe’s family had entered the U.S. legally for a vacation and then sought to remain legally, Trump’s new bottom line is clear: The family of Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Abe Rosenthal wouldn’t be permitted to share in Trump’s and Cuccinelli’s new redefinition of what the world knows as the idea that is America. And that would be America’s loss.
EPILOGUE: Our president’s grandfather came here from Germany and made his money in Alaska running a restaurant-bar-and-brothel. Cuccinelli’s heritage is Italian and Irish – and on Wednesday, he used his European heritage to make sure you won’t assume his extemporaneous rewrite of the Statue of Liberty’s poetry was a goof or gaffe. When a reporter gave him a chance to double back, Cuccinelli replied with a classy double-down:
“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.”