For many years, whenever someone accused Republicans of being anti-immigrant, they would insist that they are actually pro-immigrant and that they opposed only illegal immigration. As long as people come legally, they would say, we welcome them.
So how many Republicans have raised their voices in opposition to the Trump administration’s efforts not only to slash legal immigration but also to push out legal immigrants who are already here?
The administration has all but shut America’s doors to refugees fleeing war, disaster and oppression. They’ve allowed officials to reject green card applications for trivial paperwork errors. They’ve proposed raising immigration filing fees, just to make things more difficult.
And now, they’re following through on a proposal they first suggested not long after President Trump took office and officially unveiled last year: to use a 19th-century “public charge” principle to deny green cards and citizenship to legal immigrants who have ever used a public benefit such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program or food stamps.
The new rule stands to have its most dramatic impact on the numbers and demographics of those permitted to immigrate to the United States through a vast array of new criteria to assess whether an individual is “likely” to someday become a public charge.
Factors that can count against a green card applicant include having “a medical condition” that will interfere with work or school; not having enough money to cover “any reasonably foreseeable medical costs” related to such a medical condition; having been approved to receive a public benefit, even if the individual has not actually received the benefit; the absence of private health insurance; the absence of a college degree; not having the English language skills “sufficient to enter the job market;” or having a sponsor who is “unlikely” to provide financial support.
We might note that President Trump’s grandfather Friedrich, who immigrated to America at the age of 16 with little education, money or ability to speak English, would almost certainly have been rejected under these standards. That’s true of my ancestors who first came to America, and probably yours, too.
We should also note that the idea that if someone has ever used a public benefit then they won’t ever become a contributing member of society is absurd. As a point of reference, in the wake of the Great Recession, food stamp use peaked at 47.6 million Americans, or almost 1 in 6. There are 60 million Americans on Medicare and 72 million on Medicaid and CHIP. That’s not to mention the more than 150 million people who have employer coverage and therefore get a tax break that amounts to the government paying part of their premiums.
But many of us like to pretend that using government benefits is something other people do.
As research has shown, immigrants actually use these kinds of benefits less often than native-born citizens do. And as immigration advocates point out, this rule will force families to choose between staying together or staying in America if one member of the family is judged to be a “public charge” or likely to become one.
The anticipation of this rule being implemented is already keeping immigrants from applying for benefits that they’re eligible for. If you can claim with a straight face that being less able to feed your children or more likely to go without medical care when you get sick better enables you to pull yourself up by those mythical bootstraps, you might be able to get a job in the Trump White House.
As I have argued before, Trump’s efforts on immigration will fail to achieve their ultimate objective. America will continue to be a nation of immigrants, whites will continue to decline as a proportion of the population, this generation’s immigration wave will be followed by others just as we saw previous waves from Asia and Europe, and the tide of change will not be reversed. America cannot be made white again, no matter how hard Trump tries.
What he and the ghouls such as Stephen Miller who translate his xenophobic and racist impulses into the specifics of policy can do, however, is cause a great deal of immediate suffering to immigrants themselves. And Trump can tell people that immigrants are both the cause of their current problems and a dire threat to everything they value, even their very lives. He can spread his poison of hate and fear, encouraging everyone to nourish and cultivate their worst impulses.
Just like the policy of taking children from their parents’ arms at the border and holding children in cages, this one is meant to have a practical impact, but it’s also meant to send a message: We hate you and we don’t want you here, and if you come we will treat you with all the cruelty we can muster. If you support this president, that’s what you’ve signed on to.