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US immigration chief under fire for twisting Statue of Liberty poem

Acting US immigration chief Ken Cuccinelli twisted the words of a famous poem while discussing new, more restrictive citizenship rules (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Washington (AFP) - Acting US immigration chief Ken Cuccinelli came under fire Tuesday for twisting the words of a famed poem that appears on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.

"Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge," Cuccinelli said on National Public Radio when asked if Emma Lazarus' "The New Colossus" is "part of the American ethos."

The original poem makes no mention of economic self-sufficiency, saying: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

Cuccinelli made the remark as he discussed new rules by President Donald Trump's administration that aim to deny permanent residency and citizenship to migrants who receive food stamps, public health care and other welfare benefits.

Democratic presidential candidates were among those who took issue with Cuccinelli's comment.

"Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty. They will not be replaced. And I will fight for those values and for our immigrant communities," Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted.

"Let me be very clear: the United States will always remain a place where immigrants and refugees are welcome, regardless of how much money they have," Senator Kamala Harris wrote on Twitter.

The candidates were joined in their criticism by other Twitter users, some of whom questioned whether the official himself had indigent immigrant ancestors.

"I'm guessing someone whose last name is 'Cuccinelli' probably has a poor immigrant or two in his own family tree. Call it a hunch," one wrote.

Cuccinelli later criticized the outcry, telling CNN: "I'm not rewriting poetry. I'm introducing... policy."

When asked about Cuccinelli's comments, Trump responded by arguing for the new citizenship rules.

"It's about 'America First.' I don't think it's fair to have the American taxpayer paying for people to come into the United States," the president said.