A top Trump administration official has been criticized for saying on Monday that the man charged with stabbing five people at a Hanukkah celebration in New York was the son of an "illegal alien" and came from a family that lacked "American values."
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, made the comments in a now-deleted tweet about suspect Grafton Thomas.
"The attacker is the US Citizen son of an illegal alien who got amnesty under the 1986 amnesty law for illegal immigrants. Apparently, American values did not take hold among this entire family, at least this one violent, and apparently bigoted, son," wrote Cuccinelli, referring to the measure signed into law by President Ronald Reagan extending legal status to certain unauthorized immigrants.
Critics questioned the relevance of impugning Thomas' entire family over his alleged crimes and wondered how the immigration status of Thomas' father was relevant to the violent acts that prosecutors accuse the son of committing.
David Lapan, former Department of Homeland Security spokesman in the Trump administration, said Cuccinelli was "exploiting a tragedy to drive an anti-immigrant message, creating more division at a time when more togetherness, understanding and healing is needed."
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, did not respond to NPR's request for comment.
Cuccinelli's tweet came just before federal authorities filed hate crime charges against Thomas, accusing him of having an anti-Semitic motive when he stormed into a rabbi's house in an Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, N.Y., and carried out a stabbing rampage. State prosecutors have filed separate attempted murder charges against Thomas.
In the aftermath of the attack, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the incident should be treated as terrorism. "When you try to commit mass murder based on race, color, creed, you try to instill fear. That is terrorism," Cuomo told NPR.
Thomas, who has pleaded not guilty, is a "disturbed individual" but not someone who harbored hatred toward Jews, according to his lawyer, Michael Sussman.
In a statement to NPR responding to Cuccinelli's Twitter post, Sussman said that Thomas' parents migrated to the U.S. and were granted legal status in 1986 and that Thomas, his client, is a U.S. citizen.
"His immigration status appears totally unrelated to his mental illness and the circumstances which caused the events of last Saturday evening," Sussman said. "The comments of Mr. Cuccinelli are a disgrace and akin to blaming the parents of a mentally ill child for conceiving him or her. Such comments have no place in a rational debate about national immigration policy, a debate which is long overdue and long delayed by those currently holding executive office in our nation."
A staunch defender of the administration's hard-line immigration policies, Cuccinelli set off a controversy in August, telling NPR his take on the sonnet that appears on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge" — a revision of the famous words of Emma Lazarus. He made the comments in an interview in which he defended a program aimed at making unauthorized immigrants ineligible for government programs.