Donald Trump’s proposed “merit-based” immigration legislation sparked a heated exchange between White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta, in which they traded barbs and debated the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
On Wednesday, Trump announced his support of a bill that would judge applicants for legal residency based on their job skills, education, and ability to speak English. If it passes, it would halve the number of immigrants entering the U.S. legally.
In a press briefing after Trump’s announcement, Acosta began his question for Miller by reading part of the poem inscribed on a tablet at the Statue of Liberty. “‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,'” Acosta read, adding, “It doesn’t say anything about speaking English or being able to be a computer programmer. Aren’t you trying to change what it means to be an immigrant coming into this country if you are telling them you have to speak English? Can’t people learn how to speak English when they get here?”
Miller responded that English proficiency is required for most immigrants seeking citizenship, “so the notion that speaking English wouldn’t be a part of our immigration systems would be very ahistorical,” he said. Then, he went on to dismiss Acosta’s reference to the Statue of Liberty inscription. “I don’t want to get off on a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lightening the world,” he said. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later. It’s not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
“That sounds like some National Parks revisionism,” Acosta retorted.
(The poem, “The New Colossus,” was written by Emma Lazarus in 1883; it was solicited for an auction to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal and was inspired by Lazarus’ experience aiding refugees. The statue was completed in 1886, and a plaque featuring the poem was mounted in 1903.)
Miller went on to ask Acosta how many legal immigrants a year would satisfy his “definition of the Statue of Liberty poem’s law of the land.” With much talking over one another, the CNN reporter continued to press the Trump adviser over the proposed changes to immigration policy. “This whole notion of, ‘Well, they have to learn English before they get to the United States’ — are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?” posited Acosta, whose father immigrated from Cuba in the 1960s.
“I am shocked at your statement that you think only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English,” said Miller. “It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree. This is an amazing moment — that you think only people from Great Britain or Australia would speak English is so insulting to millions of hardworking immigrants who do speak English from all over the world. … That is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant, and foolish things you have ever said, and for you, that’s still a really… The notion that you think this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting.”
Miller continued to stridently defend the bill but ended his time behind the podium with an apology… of sorts. “I apologize, Jim, if things got heated,” Miller said. “But you did make some pretty rough insinuations.”
Miller’s comments were condemned by some on Twitter, including the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, whose executive director, Steven Goldstein, released a statement: “Stephen Miller has turned himself simultaneously into a Statue of Arrogance and a National Monument of Ignorance. His subpar knowledge of American history, as reflected in Emma Lazarus’ poem, means he couldn’t pass President Trump’s new immigration test. Therefore, Stephen, please leave.”
Watch the full clip above.