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Associated Press Photo

In this July 3, 2007, file photo, the Statue of Liberty stands at sunset in New York. The Statue of Liberty is at the center of a national debate on immigration after a top Trump administration official offered the president’s own interpretation of the famous inscription that has welcomed immigrants to the United States for more than a century. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — The Statue of Liberty is at the center of a national debate on immigration after a top Trump administration official offered the president’s own interpretation of the famous inscription that has welcomed immigrants to the United States for more than a century.

The acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, who is an immigration hardliner, said Tuesday that the poem by Emma Lazarus referred to “people coming from Europe” and that America is looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet.”

Lazarus’ poem, written in 1883 to raise money to construct the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, was cast in bronze beneath the monument in 1903. The statue and the poem’s words have served as a beacon to millions of immigrants as they first entered the nation in New York Harbor. It reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Cuccinelli’s comments came as Democrats and immigrant-rights groups blasted a new Trump administration policy that could deny green cards to migrants who seek public assistance, saying the changes would scare immigrants away from asking for needed help.

President Donald Trump has spoken disparagingly about immigration from majority black and Hispanic countries, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals when he launched his 2016 campaign. Last year, he privately referred to Central American and African nations as “shithole” countries and suggested the U.S. take in more immigrants from European countries such as predominantly white Norway.