My Grandparents and Ken Cuccinelli – Who Would Have Sent Them Back

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg describes the experiences of his grandparents' immigration to America from Eastern Europe in contrast to the recent pronouncement by Ken Cuccinelli, who serves as Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, that the US should only admit immigrants who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

In 1912, my paternal grandfather, Archie Steinberg came to America from Rozan, Poland, Years later, he told my father, Melvin “Moshe” Steinberg, “Moishe, mein kint (Yiddish for “my child), I didn’t walk off the boat – the bugs carried me off!”

Ken Cuccinelli serves as Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director in the xenophobic administration of President Donald Trump.  He is the author of a new proposed regulation defining the term “public charge” in our immigration laws.  For purposes of this column, I will describe this new rule as the “Cuccinelli Rule.”  

The public charge concept was first established by Congress in 1882 in order to allow the U.S. government to deny a U.S. visa to anyone who “is likely at any time to become a public charge” but without defining what “public charge” means. 

Under the Cuccinelli Rule, green card and other visa applicants could be denied not only for being “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” (the current standard) but also for using “one or more public benefits” in the past or being “likely at any time” to receive such benefits in the future.  One of the criteria in the Cuccinelli Rule under which an immigrant is deemed “likely at any time” to receive government benefits is insufficient financial resources at the time of immigration. 

Under the insufficient financial resources criterion, Ken Cuccinelli would have barred my totally destitute grandfather, Archie Steinberg, from immigration into this country.  Archie Steinberg would have been compelled to return to Rozan, Poland, where he would have been murdered three decades later by the Nazis during the Holocaust. 

Four years later, in 1916, my maternal grandmother, Bessie Perr, came to America in the steerage of a ship from Ponevez, Lithuania.  She and her family arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but a sack of clothing. 

Under the insufficient financial resources criterion, Ken Cuccinelli would have barred my grandmother, Bessie Perr, from entry into America.  She and her family would have been forced to return to Ponevez, Lithuania.   Three decades later, they would have all been murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. 

Fortunately for my grandparents, Archie Steinberg and Bessie Perr and millions of other Eastern European Jewish immigrants, there was no Ken Cuccinelli to force them to return to their ultimate deaths in Eastern Europe.  Instead, there was in New York Harbor, on what was then Bedloe’s Island, now Liberty Island, the Statue of Liberty, dedicated in 1886, designed by the French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi.   

Bessie Perr, who could not speak English at the time of her immigration, often told me the story of her first sighting of the Statue of Liberty and how it uplifted her soul.  At the base of the Statue of Liberty was a plaque containing the words of a poem, “The New Colossus,” written by a fourth generation American Jewess, Emma Lazarus.  The following words of the poem symbolize the American Dreams of Archie Steinberg and Bessie Perr: 

“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!” 

Neither Donald Trump nor Ken Cuccinelli understands either America or the American Dream.  Accordingly, it should have surprised nobody when Ken Cuccinelli obscenely suggested the following rewrite of the Emma Lazarus poem: 

“Give me your tired and your poor — who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” 

Fortunately, there was no Donald Trump nor Ken Cuccinelli in power in America when Archie Steinberg and Bessie Perr arrived.  Their American dreams came true. 

Archie moved to Pittsburgh, where he met and married Rose Steinberg, an American-born Jewish daughter whose parents were immigrants from Poland.  Archie and Rose bought a home at 5524 Darlington Road, in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, where Archie became Pittsburgh’s  leading kosher butcher. 

America today knows Squirrel Hill very well.  Its magnificent Jewish community is nationally renowned for its unsurpassed assistance to immigrants.  Because of that, in the xenophobic, bigoted America of Donald Trump, Ken Cuccinelli, and Stephen Miller, it became the object of white nationalist hatred, culminating in the murder of Jews in the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018.   But the wonderful community of Squirrel Hill shall endure.  When I visit and walk down Murray Avenue, the main street of Squirrel Hill and see the site where Archie Steinberg’s store once stood, I will always feel a special sense of pride. 

My grandmother, Bessie Perr moved with her parents, brothers, and sister to a suburb of Pittsburgh, New Kensington, and married my grandfather, Louis Miller, also a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania.  They endured years of poverty, but they were able to open a successful men’s clothing store in New Kensington in the early 1940s.   

But the real legacy Bessie left us was the book she used to study for her American citizenship test.  Outside of her family and Judaism, my grandmother was most proud of her American citizenship. 

My status as a grandson of American Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe is something I think of literally every day of my life.  On September 7, 2005, President George W. Bush appointed me as Region 2 EPA Administrator.  At my swearing-in in Manhattan that evening, I spoke with pride of Bessie Perr and how an appointment of her grandchild to a high position by a President of the United States nearly ninety years after she arrived at Ellis Island would have been beyond her dreams.  I noted that the site of my swearing-in was less than a mile away from Ellis Island.   

After I finished my remarks, my mother was in tears and said to me, “I am so proud.”  That’s what our immigrant heritage meant to our family. 

A magnificent Eastern European Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, wrote the musical, “Miss Liberty” in 1949.  It featured the song, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” containing the hallowed words of Emma Lazarus.  In the link below, Irving sings the song!  It symbolizes the American Dream, which neither Donald Trump, Ken Cuccinelli, nor Stephen Miller will be able to destroy. 

I now have one more act to perform to keep faith with my immigrant grandparents.  I look forward, God willing, to taking my four-year-old granddaughter to the Statue of Liberty and reading her the words of Emma Lazarus on the base of the statue.   

I can tell my granddaughter that those words describe the history of her great-great-grandparents in America.  I pray that the Golden Door described by Emma Lazarus will remain open to refugees throughout the world, who will have the same opportunity to dream and attain the American Dream of my grandparents.  And I will explain to my granddaughter that the goodness of the American people will prevail, and that they will never allow Donald Trump, Ken Cuccinelli, and Stephen Miller to close the Golden Door. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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  • brenda morris

    No. And profoundly silly, too.

    In 1916, no welfare state existed, so there was no danger of his ancestors becoming public charges. And here’s a bet: they never cost the taxpayers a dime. They never got welfare. They never got food stamps. They never got Medicaid. They never received a housing subsidy. They arrived, went to work, and relied on their family, relatives, friends, synagogue, and community when they needed help. They never mooched from the taxpayers.

    Circumstances today differ markedly from those prevailing in 1882. Does the author wish to apply 1882 standards elsewhere – say, environmental laws? civil rights laws? Wage and hour laws? If not, perhaps he should update his thinking about immigration to reflect today’s conditions.

  • 1Prop

    I hope you’re not getting paid to be such a whiner. You are worse than the dishonest mainstream media. You cherry pick a few words, take them out of context, distort them and make yourself the victim. Your great-grandparents’ situation, just as mine was totally different and irrelevant to today’s immigration problem. My ancestors were not part of an organized effort to come here, get free stuff and ultimately vote Democrat. They came to work because of the Irish potato famine on one side and Russian persecution on the other.

    There is nothing racist or xenophobic in enforcing the laws and controlling the borders. Without them we have no country. Try to enter any other country in the world illegally – you can’t. I didn’t hear you cry about the Obama child cages or the 80+ times Obama’s border security fired on immigrants.

    Grow up and stop being a crybaby. You are just another annoyance subverting journalism because your gal lost and, as Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth.”

  • Point Pleasant

    A wonderful story. I and many people in NJ could write a similar story. Where would NJ or other states be without the hard work immigrants brought to our state and country?

  • Brian Andersson

    Enough with the drama, Alan Steinberg. You can’t clip and paste history. The previous comments are exactly correct. If your ancestor was indeed “LPC” (“Liable to become a Public Charge”) on the inspection sheets and passenger lists documentation, he would have stood a very good chance of being sent back at steamship company expense. But, obviously he was not. 2019 is not 1919. But you know that.

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