The Statue of Liberty’s famous ‘huddled masses’ inscription only applies to “people coming from Europe”, according to America’s acting director of citizenship and immigration services.
Ken Cuccinelli, a top Trump administration official, said America is looking to receive migrants “who can stand on their own two feet”.
Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem was cast in bronze beneath the monument in 1903.
The statue and the poem’s words are an iconic symbol and visual beacon to millions of immigrants as they travelled to America and pulled into 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.”
Mr Cuccinelli, a failed Republican governor candidate who was previously a harsh critic of Donald Trump, was asked on US news service NPR whether the words “give me your tired, your poor” were part of the American ethos.
He said: “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.”
Earlier this week, a photo of a mural painted last month by British immigrant Izaac Zevalking in Las Vegas went viral.
It shows the Statue of Liberty arrested, handcuffed and bent over the bonnet of a US immigration vehicle.
The comments come as a new Trump administration policy is touted which could see green cards denied to migrants who seek public assistance.
Democrats and immigrant-rights groups say the changes would scare those who need it away from asking for help and would in effect prevent many migrants from poorer countries in Latin America and Africa from moving to the US.
President Trump has repeatedly made slurs and racist comments about immigrants from black and Hispanic countries, including calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.