Defending the Trump administration’s decision to tighten restrictions on legal immigrants who receive government benefits, referred to as “public charges,” Ken Cuccinelli suggested a creative reinterpretation of the iconic poem by Emma Lazarus memorialized on the Statue of Liberty. Asked whether the words of the poem are a part of the “American ethos,” the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services 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.’” His remarks came two days after the U.S. gymnast Simone Biles became the first woman to ever complete a triple-double floor routine—three turns while doing two backflips. It would require even more difficult mental gymnastics to conclude that revising the words etched on the most recognizable symbol of the American promise could amount to a defense of this country’s ethos.
Under the new regulations, announced by the Department of Homeland Security on Aug. 12, noncitizens applying for permanent legal status, as well as those seeking entrance to the United States, can be denied green cards if they use—or are predicted by an immigration official to be likely to need at some point—means-tested public benefits for more than 12 months over a three-year period. Since 1999, a “public charge” has been defined as anyone “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through cash-assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
These new regulations primarily serve to send a message that those fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries are not welcome here.
Under the Trump administration’s new definition, a legal resident who enrolled in Medicaid or food assistance programs could, because of that, be denied permanent legal status and made subject to deportation. In other words, this new definition of “public charge” would apply not only to immigrants who do not have jobs and depend solely on the government but also to those who use benefit programs in combination with employment to help make ends meet when, for example, their job does not provide health insurance or does not schedule them for enough hours to put food on the table.
As a result of the policy, it is likely that fewer legal immigrants, in particular, those who rely on the family-based (as opposed to skills-based) immigration programs, will be admitted to this country; and current legal residents, including the spouses and parents of U.S. citizens, could be denied permanent status and separated from their families. Experts predict legal immigrants will be less likely to avail themselves of benefits for their children who are citizens out of fear that it could be held against them. After the rule change was first announced in September 2018, legal immigrants dropped out of or did not enroll in noncash benefit programs because they did not want to risk their chances of obtaining a green card.
The stated goal is to reinforce “the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” according to Mr. Cuccinelli. But these new regulations, like the administration’s other draconian immigration policies, primarily serve to send a message that those fleeing poverty and violence in their home countries are not welcome here.
The men, women and children migrating from countries like Honduras are not uprooting their lives in hopes of scraping by on handouts.
The U.S. bishops have said the rule change is “in tension with the dignity of the person and the common good that all of us are called to support.” In a statement in June, the bishops also condemned the treatment of asylum seekers at the southern border, saying: “Such conditions cannot be used as tools of deterrence. We can and must remain a country that provides refuge for children and families fleeing violence, persecution, and acute poverty.”
The Trump administration’s immigration policies consistently betray not only a profound misunderstanding of what drives the tired and poor to our shores and borders but what they long for—and have historically achieved—when they arrive. It also trades on hostility to public benefits, falsely portraying them as a handout for the undeserving rather than recognizing them as forms of solidarity that ultimately strengthen the social fabric of the country.
The men, women and children migrating from countries like Honduras and Eritrea are not uprooting their lives in hopes of scraping by on handouts. Rather, they seek the political stability and economic opportunity they hope to find in the United States. The foundation of that opportunity is not the mythic “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” version of the American Dream. It is a society that bolsters the common good by making sure that no child goes to school hungry and no one puts off medical care until the only option is the emergency room. And it is a nation that recognizes the gifts each new wave of immigrants has to offer.