By Gabrielle Bruney, Esquire
Posted September 25th 2018
The spectacle of Donald J. Trump, American president, flailing on Twitter can be strangely reassuring-lulling us into the false belief that his administration is too incompetent to act on its worst impulses. But this weekend offered a reminder of the cruelties the Trump team can accomplish, in the form of a plan that would force authorized immigrants to choose between feeding and housing themselves and their children and being awarded green cards.
Under the proposed new rule, use of public benefits including food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers will be considered “heavily weighted negative factors” in green card applications, incentivizing low-income immigrant families to go without necessities like food and healthcare in order to strengthen their immigration cases.
The effects on the children of immigrants, most of whom are themselves American citizens, could be absolutely monstrous. Parents would be forced to decide whether to let their kids go hungry, knowing that feeding their children with the help of food stamps could one day contribute to their families being broken up by deportation. This is all despite the fact that immigrants avail themselves of benefits at lower rates than do native-born Americans.
To be clear, if adopted, this rule would affect only legal immigrants-you know, the ones who are “waiting in line” and doing everything conservatives say they’re supposed to-as undocumented immigrants are already ineligible for benefit programs. The rule would not apply to current green card holders, refugees, or asylum seekers, and according to the Trump administration will effect 382,000 people. It also wouldn’t be retroactive, and immigrants’ green card chances won’t be hurt if they remove themselves from the benefits rolls within 60 days of the rule going into effect.
This policy is apparently the creation of Trump aide Stephen Miller, who’s adopted the persecution of immigrants as his raison d’être. It’s in keeping with other administration attempts to constrain immigration from poorer nations-“shithole countries,” in Trump parlance-and instead create an immigrant class consisting of the wealthy.
Under his administration, the only visa category that is issuing more approvals than were granted under prior presidencies is the EB-5 program, which bestows visas to those who can pay $500,000 to $1 million for them.
The New York Times reports that health conditions like cancer and mental illness will also be considered “heavily weighted negative factor” under the new rule, forcing poor, sick migrants to make impossible choices:
It is a Catch-22, said Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Poor immigrants with health conditions must prove that they are insured, but they cannot use the available benefits to enroll.
“It’s a bit like the creation of a castelike system,” Mr. Fremstad said. “Unless you’ve had an ‘American dream’ going for you in your home country, you’re going to have a hard time earning it here. It’s really screening those people.”
However, the effect of the policy could spread far beyond the hundreds of thousands immigrants the administration predicts it will affect. The new rule-spelled out in a 447 page document-adds further complication to our notoriously difficult-to-navigate immigration system.It’s likely that in the hopes of being safe rather than sorry, many immigrants will take themselves off of benefits rolls even if this specific rule doesn’t apply to them-something that’s already begun to happen.
The Trump administration proposal is not an entirely new policy-the government already considers welfare use in immigration applications, and laws on the books since at least the 1880s have discouraged the acceptance of immigrants thought to be burdens on the state-but until now benefits like food stamps have not been been weighed negatively in green card applications. This marks a continued departure for conservatives, who have traditionally insisted that they support legal immigrants. Even during his Friday debate with challenger Beto O’Rourke, Republican Senator Ted Cruz described his immigration policy as “legal, good; illegal, bad.” But the Trump administration is attacking legal immigrants as well as their undocumented counterparts in a way that makes it clear that Trumpian immigration policy is more along the lines of “rich, good; poor, bad.”
Though the economy is supposedly booming and jobs are going unfilled, wages remain low and haven’t kept apace with working Americans’ productivity. As sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote earlier this month, a full third of the national labor force, more than $40 million people, earn wages of under $12 an hour, and most are not provided health insurance through their employers. Accordingly, benefits programs that are often imagined to be needlessly generous safety nets for the indolent poor are actually integral to the survival of hard-working Americans, functioning as a welfare system for employers who refuse to provide workers with health insurance or a living wage.
Consider SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often known as food stamps. Forty-four percent of households on the program already include at least one income-earner, and a majority of beneficiaries are people with disabilities, children, or the elderly. Frequently, working-age adults on the program use it for short periods, usually while holding down jobs. In fact, childless adults who work less than 20 hours a week already face severely restricted SNAP eligibility, and qualify for the program for a total of three months out of every three years. Childless immigrants who rely on SNAP have already proven that they’re the “good” kind of immigrant-here legally and working at least half time. To disincentivize such a person’s use of benefits is nothing but cruelty. And in the cases of immigrant households on SNAP that include kids, the Trump administration will be taking food from the mouths of young children.
The rule doesn’t require congressional approval, and after a 60-day public review period is expected to go into effect. With it, the administration has found yet another way to deal an awful blow to one of the least powerful groups in our society-the immigrant poor.