INDIANAPOLIS – “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!”

These were the epic words of the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colossus”  adorning the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. These words cut to the crux of the American experiment and spoke to our epic, melting-pot heritage.

Ken Cuccinelli is acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and he made an astounding assertion on Tuesday. As the Trump administration seeks to dramatically limit legal immigration to America, Cuccinelli tweaked the Lazarus poem after a question from the press.

“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 during a “Morning Edition”  interview. Cuccinelli responded, “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.’ That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed – very interesting timing.”

Thus we see the aberration of a basic American ethos, replaced by President Trump and top aide Stephen Miller’s attempt to stir ethnic, racial, urban and rural divides in the country they govern. They want only white Europeans, with degrees, and some wealth. Thus, we are watching in real time a perversion of an American ideal.

I remembered in-laws of my family, who lived in Richmond. They immigrated to the U.S. from Poland after World War I. They didn’t make it. While the current Great Society welfare system was not in place in the 1920s, it would be safe to assume that at some point they had help, whether it was from a church, a soup kitchen, the Salvation Army or a haven like the Hull House on Chicago’s near west side or even a “public charge.” They had to return to their homeland with considerable disappointment, if not shame. 

A few years later, they came to America for a second time. This time they made it. He worked in a Toledo foundry, raising a family that would yield nurses, university professors and a Baptist minister.

I suspect many of you reading this very post have similar inspirational family histories. Certainly, the Trump and Pence families did.

Cuccinelli not only doesn’t understand this basic American tenet, he had a number of other facts wrong. NPR reports that the first “public charge” rule for immigration, which he called “very interesting timing” was codified in 1882. Lazarus’s poem was written in 1883 and was not placed on Lady Liberty until 1903.

Immigrants make up 13.7% of the current U.S. population, according to the Brookings Institute, which is well within historic norms. More than 44.5 million immigrants resided in the United States in 2017, the historical high since census records have been kept. One in seven U.S. residents is foreign-born, according to 2017 American Community Survey data. While immigrants’ current share of the overall U.S. population (325.7 million people) has been increasing since the record low marked in 1970, it remains below the historical record of 14.8% in 1890.

Here in President Trump’s America, not only do we have record employment (which he deserves some of the credit), we have a need for more labor. There are currently 77,000 unfilled jobs in Indiana and 7.3 million across the U.S., according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are many jobs that current Americans don’t want to do, such as farm labor or those in chicken processing plants like the ones that ICE raided in Mississippi last week.

The anti-immigrant sentiments stoked by Trump and Miller are based on faulty perceptions. Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015 claiming that Mexicans coming to the U.S. were “rapists” and criminals. The Migrant Policy Institute (MPI) reports that reasons for deportation include 83% immigration violation, 7% for aggravated felony, 6% for other crimes, 4% other. So only a small fraction of immigrants are criminals.

And there are zero instances of an immigrant committing an act of terrorism in the U.S. Zero.

According to the George W. Bush Center, 72.5% of immigrants “believe hard work is how you succeed in America” and are responsible for half of the total U.S. labor force growth over the last decade. Immigrant-owned businesses with employees have an average of 11 workers, as some of you have witnessed if you hire a lawn care company or have had your home reroofed. Some 7.6% of immigrants were self-employed compared to 5.6% of native-born Americans. Immigrants have founded more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies. Precisely 42 slots on the Forbes 400 belong to naturalized citizens who immigrated to America, or 10.5% of the list. The Bush Center reports that 62.2% of immigrants age 16 and older were employed, compared to 58.1% of native-born Americans.

Immigrants are more likely to have college degrees than native-born Americans and are more likely to have advanced degrees. According to MPI, in 2017, 31% (12 million) of the 39 million immigrants ages 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 32% of U.S.-born adults. Notably, the share of college-educated immigrants was much higher, 47%, among those who entered the country in the previous five years (between 2012 and 2017).

So many of these yearning Americans are far from wretched, huddled masses. Some are and they may have gotten some public assistance along the way. So what? It’s part of what we call pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Sometimes you need a helping hand, not a permanent handout.

Forbes Magazine’s Monte Burke cited Thomas Peterffy, who was born in the basement of a Budapest hospital on Sept. 30, 1944. Peterffy landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in December 1965. “He had no money and spoke no English. He had a single suitcase, which contained a change of clothes, a surveying handbook, a slide rule and a painting of an ancestor,” Burke writes. Peterffy founded Interactive Brokers Group and at age 72 is now worth an estimated $12.6 billion.

“Thomas Peterffy embodies the American Dream,” explained Burke. So does Google founder Sergey Brin ($37.5 billion), eBay founder Pierre Omidyar ($8.1 billion), Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk ($11.6 billion). And Rupert Murdoch, George Soros, Jerry Yang, Micky Arison, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Jan Koum, Jeff Skoll, Jorge Perez, and Peter Thiel. 

In the Hoosier context, notable immigrants included Clemens Vonnegut, Sarkes Tarzian, Kanwal Prakash Singh, Josef Gingold, Elias Esau Daniels (grandfather of a governor), Rajan Gajaria, Riccardo Giacconi, Nickoliss Shaheen, Salvador Luria, Michael McRobbie, Akira Suzuki, Rolando A. DeCastro, J. Hans Jensen, Christel DeHaan, Ei-ichi Negishi, Juana Watson and Eva Mozes Kor. All of these Hoosiers made our state more learned, artistic, communicative and prosperous.

President Trump’s anti-immigration stance, his stoking fears of caravans and invasions, may be good politics – it helped  Mike Braun defeat Sen. Joe Donnelly in 2018 – though it backfired across much of the rest of America.

Legal immigration has brought America new vitality, wave after wave. It is a renewal. And it is under unwarranted attack. 

The columnist is founder and publisher of Howey Politics Indiana, which began publishing in August 1994.