The myth of the self-sufficient immigrant that’s fueling the White House’s draconian policy

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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.

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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.

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J Cosgrove
2 months ago

The Emma Lazarus poem was not part of the statue of liberty. It was added about 20 years later to the inside on a small plaque. The original of the poem is at the The American Jewish Historical Society.
The Statue of Liberty is not a beacon for immigration but a beacon for liberty. It was meant to show the world what liberty can do. Now many have come here because of the liberty that this country offered and the statue has represented. But it was primarily meant to export liberty as a concept. Something which the Catholic Church and left wing politics has fought against for centuries.

J Cosgrove
2 months ago

At the time the Lazarus poem was placed inside the Statue of Liberty (1903), most of the world was forbidden to immigrate to the United States. So while very inspirational, it never did represent immigration policy for the United States let alone open immigration.

J Cosgrove
2 months ago

The current immigration laws which were established in 1965 has led along with the War on Poverty to the deterioration of the African American community within the United States. The large influx of low skilled immigrants that then happened led to lower wages for blue collar workers and made getting work for low skilled males extremely difficult. Wages for unsupervised blue collar workers peaked in 1973 due to the large influx of low skilled immigrants. So while the proponents of an expanded immigration policy sing the praises of their approach to immigration for the United States it has some very damaging affects on the poor in the United States. Something they fail to admit.

Michael Bindner
2 months ago

The self-sufficient cannot Grok the Kingdom of God. Indeed, insisting that the poor be self sufficient encourages abortion and suicide. As for Cucc, he just sank his regulation, which will face multiple challenges under the APA. He just added one. He is either stupid or is sabotaging Trump and Miller. These restrictions turn undocumented migrants into slave labor, which benefits bad bosses. They will retaliate against any just complaint with deportation.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months ago

Editors
You have failed to note that the proposed new rules which you describe as draconian do not apply to “refugees” or “Asylum seeks”.
The new rules apply to applicants who are not refugees or asylum seeks but are simply requesting to move from their home country to the the United States. You suggest that the United States should have no standards for non refugee / non asylum seeks. Find me another country which permits this approach.
Try out that approach on becoming a Vatican Citizen....not to be a Vatican resident... just try to get recognized for a Vatican Passport! To be a Vatican citizen or to even get a Vatican Passport you MUST WORK for the Vatican /Holy See. During the reign of Benedict 16 the historic residents of the Vatican lost their Vatican Passports unless they WORKED for the Holy See.

As an addendum : the Editors are quick to moralize their position by a misreading reading of the history of the Statue of Liberty/ and Emma Lazarus Poem (See J Cosgrove ). I also note that the United States Immigration Act Of 1882 prohibits the acceptance of applicants “who are liable to become a public charge”. So what you now declare as shockingly new is in fact quite acceptably old...and it was the law at the time the Statue of Liberty was dedicated!

arthur mccaffrey
2 months ago

more gobbldeygook from America's bleeding heart editors--we do not have an immigration policy that is driven by economic and social principles--we need to bring in people who can help address some internal domestic problems, not people who just breed and add children to the welfare rolls. I would like to see the Editors put their money where their mouths are and sponsor some of these immigrants who bring so many "gifts" to our shores. It always amazes me how a a religion like RCC which lives by so many structured rules and regulations, seems to drop everything in order to welcome the migrant. I also laugh when one paragraph blasts Trump, then the next paragraph says that people from Honduras and Eritrea come here for our "political stability"!!!

Kathleen Carpenter
2 months ago

Please educate yourselves on why parents are risking the hazardous trip with their children. If a family member or your child is threatened by gangs, what would you do? Also please look at the part the US has played in gangs forming in Central America. Also who supplies the guns? The US. We have been and remain a colonial power in Latin America.

Stuart Meisenzahl
2 months ago

Kathleen
Name the number of people that you would accept as immigrants without prequalification of any kind.
If you cannot or are unprepared to name a number , then you are simply in favor of An Open Border.
I fully understand why this might be your choice but you cannot disguise or evade that choice by an emotional appeal. As a practical matter the physical ability to accept immigrants on that basis would simply collapse on its own based on its own titanic burden

Tara Terminiello
2 months ago

what good is coming here to avoid gangs when you are so poor, so uneducated, so ignorant and so unprepared for life here you wind up living in horrible neighborhoods threatened by gangs?

Stanley Kopacz
2 months ago

Highly educated immigrants won't wipe the asses of the baby boomers but the uneducated will. The educated ones knock down the wages of the highly educated Americans. Greenspan saw the "need" for this and we have the H1-B visa. All this immigration from Central America is blowback from our doodlefricking with their country's politics for the benefit of our policies and corporations and not their people. Immigrants from the South are a useful target for demagogues and a convenient distraction from who is really screwing the American public.

E.Patrick Mosman
2 months ago

Where is your outrage at parents who turn their children plus thousands of dollars to coyotes to smuggle them into America and we are faced with thousands of' unaccompanied children,Trump's fault?

Charles Erlinger
2 months ago

Years ago when I first decided to learn all that I could about the ancient, and yet modern, concept of the common good, it began to dawn on me that no one is really self-sufficient. The more that I learned about the subject, the more obvious this truth became. We all contribute to it, often without giving it too much thought, and we all draw from it, mostly without giving it any thought. The headline is true. Self-sufficiency is a myth.

The question remains, then, why are we so attached to this myth? People who “do well” through hard work seem understandably to attribute their success in large part to that hard work. What is not remembered, it seems to me, is that even the commendable hard work is made possible at least in some part by the efforts of others. Our parents and other benefactors come to mind. Selfless dedication of teachers and mentors formed another source of support, plus the support and encouragement of spouses, our own children, friends and many others. We can even thank philanthropists, union members and politicians.

So why the myth?

Tara Terminiello
2 months ago

cause its not a myth. Youre right, a healthy society consists of a strong network of individuals all coming together to do their part . And they are all self sufficient in that they all have a job to do and they do it. And their ancestors did it, which is why a group prospers down the line. The start of self sufficiency is education, staying in school, avoiding the traps of drinking, drugs, unwanted pregnancy, getting a job, not making babies outside of marriage and marrying only when youre ready to seriously undertake the responsibility. Of the hundreds of images I see of migrants theres never a father or husband in the picture......its always some chubbo with 5 kids in tow who who couldnt be bothered to bring her own toothbrushes to the US border.They have cell phones, but no diapers.

FRAN ABBOTT
2 months ago

It always saddens me when I read comments that demonize people less fortunate than we are and show profound lack of empathy for fellow human beings.

Tara Terminiello
2 months ago

you will feel like demonizing yourself when the Baby Boomers really start retiring and SS, Medicaid,Medicare and food stamps go out of business. Over half of the Baby Boomers have no retirement money saved at all, and then people will start thinking, too bad we let all the free loaders in.

Ron Martel
2 months ago

I see many people in food stores using food stamp cards that are not brown skin. Remember many illegals pay taxes and get no services. You have to wonder what gospel some who comment here are reading.

Tara Terminiello
2 months ago

they may be paying taxes on things they purchase, but if they are here illegally they are not working or working off the books.

FRAN ABBOTT
2 months ago

As the Recent ICE raid in Mississippi shows, many undocumented people are openly working, supporting their families and contributing to their communities.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 months ago

How about "he who does not work should not eat?" II Thess 3:10. If they are "illegals" who are "paying taxes," it must mean (a) sales tax that everybody pays or (b) social security tax, which they are paying in a fake identity. So pardon me if I do not feel sorry for taxes paid by people engaging in identity theft.

E.Patrick Mosman
2 months ago

Attempting to justify illegal entry is ludicrous as actually America is a nation of legal immigrants who arrived here through government immigration locations, Ellis Island and Galveston for example. Immigration police patrolled the streets of New York with authority to ask individuals for their immigration papers and if they could not produce proof of legal entry they were arrested and deported. Most while while holding on to their homeland's customs, became Americans, learned English, voted legally, raised their children as Americans and insisted on a good education and many never returned to their country of origin. The Federal government's failure to enforce its own immigration laws and to secure the borders has completely shredded the ideal that the USA is a nation of laws

FRAN ABBOTT
2 months ago

The definition of legal entry keeps changing under this administration.

E.Patrick Mosman
2 months ago

Suggest you brush up on the Immigration and Nationality Act and then advise how the definition of "legal entry" kept changing. The fact is that previous administrations simply ignored the law.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 months ago

In 1996, i.e., 23 years ago, Congress amended the law to require sponsors of legal immigrants (the kinds of people we are talking about here) to sign binding affidavits of support, i.e., guarantees to support the immigrant they want to bring here, corroborated by proof of their income, for ten years (40 work quarters, enough to vest the immigrant in Social Security) or the immigrant getting citizenship. That requirement has always been watered down; the Administration is finally insisting "public charge" means "public charge." There is no entitlement to immigrate, even if you are "poor" (poverty is not a qualifying category under the Immigration and Nationality Act, and if it were, there would be a global demographic shift to the USA). As usual, this article is full of talk about what we owe immigrants, dressed with pious quotes, and nary a word about what immigrants owe to become part of our political and social polity.

Christopher Scott
2 months ago

There are people in various parts of the world where people still live lives like what you see in a Christmas nativity scene, they’re largely illiterate goat herders and such. You’re rounding all these people up, putting them on dangerous journeys to relocate them in major metropolitan areas in Europe and the US. How do you expect them to survive? What are you doing? Better to help improve their situation where they are.

Helene Guilfoy
2 months ago

Cuccinelli is one of yours.... GONZAGA HS, Washington, DC. Do you think he might have cut that class?

Victor Africa
2 months ago

Dear Editors,
Thank you for reminding me that I am not a self sufficient pilgrim here on earth. Please pray for me that our Lord may continue to sustain me as I travel through this life and continue to recognize our Lord’s face in each person I meet, in the faces of the poor, the immigrants at our borders, our leaders, our church, our familes, our co workers, that I may serve Him through them hoping that when I reach His heavenly borders, I will recognize who He is and be welcomed by our Awesome Lord and God.
V Africa

Stephen Shore
1 month 2 weeks ago

A wall is not the answer and de-criminalizing illegal entry is not the answer. And both political parties know it.

Both parties are held hostage by big business who depend on illegal immigrants for their labor pool - chicken processors, meat packers, construction, low level manufacturing, etc. There is a VESTED interest in NOT solving this issue by both political parties.

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