Fireworks in the press room as White House rolls out immigration bill

Michael Walsh
Reporter

Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior adviser for policy, got into a heated argument with the press over — among other things — the Statue of Liberty, while promoting the administration’s plans for immigration reform on Wednesday afternoon.

Miller described Trump’s policy as one that would eliminate chain migration, limit family-based migration and introduce a point-based system that evaluates whether an applicant can speak English, earn a high wage and add a needed skill to the U.S. economy.

The frequently contentious Miller stuck to his message about unskilled, illegal immigration taking jobs from Americans throughout most of the press briefing, which went off the rails during the final question.

Jim Acosta, senior White House correspondent for CNN, quoted from the poem inscribed inside the Statue of Liberty, whose most famous lines read: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Acosta suggested it was “not in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration” to require that immigrants already speak English or have useful, in-demand skills.

Miller dismissed the poem as not truly representing the meaning of the statue, which is formally named “Liberty Enlightening the World.”

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller at the White House daily briefing, Aug. 2, 2017. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)

“The poem that you’re referring to was added later. [It] was not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty,” Miller said, correctly — although the poem, titled “The New Colossus,” was written by Emma Lazarus as part of an appeal to raise money to erect the base of the statue.

Acosta said that answer sounded like “National Park revisionism.”

“They’re not always going to speak English, Stephen. They’re not always going to be highly skilled,” he said.

Miller accused Acosta of being “shockingly ahistorical,” noting that levels of immigration to the United States have ebbed and flowed.

“I want to be serious here, Jim. Do you at CNN not know the difference between green card police and immigration?” he said. “Do you really not know that?”

Acosta, who is Cuban-American, pointed out that his father immigrated to the U.S. in 1962, right before the Cuban missile crisis. He said many people immigrate to this country without passing through Ellis Island but still obtain a green card through hard work, and may learn English as a second language. He was highly critical of Miller’s insistence that immigrants know English before they arrive.

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?” Acosta asked.

“I’ll honestly say I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. Actually, it reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree,” Miller said. “[It] is so insulting to millions of hard-working immigrants who do speak English from all over the world.”

Acosta said Miller sounded as if he wanted to “engineer the racial and ethnic flow” of people into the U.S.

“That is one of the most outrageous, insulting, ignorant and foolish things you’ve ever said,” Miller shot back. “The notion that you think this is a racist bill is so wrong and so insulting.”

According to Miller, the United States’ foreign-born population has quadrupled since 1970. He accused Acosta of advocating “unfettered, uncontrolled migration,” which he said hurts immigrant, African-American and Hispanic workers the most.

“Insinuations like Jim made, trying to ascribe nefarious motives to a compassionate immigration measure, designed to help newcomers and current arrivals alike is wrong,” he said.

Miller concluded by apologizing to Acosta “if things got heated,” but reiterated that he thought the journalist made some “pretty rough insinuations.”

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