Trump Has Found a New Way to Make Immigrant Families Suffer

Immigrants Food Stamps
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Immigrants Food Stamps

Rosa, an undocumented immigrant, used to receive about $190 per month from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, but she stopped taking benefits fearing that it could lead to her deportation. (AP Photo / Bebeto Matthews)

By dramatically expanding whom the United States deems likely to become a “public charge,” the Trump administration will deny entry to more immigrants while punishing hundreds of thousand of immigrants who are here legally. Set to take effect in January, new rules will direct immigration officers to reject naturalization, visa petitions, and green cards for individuals who have taken advantage of assistance like Medicaid, food stamps, or even Earned Income Tax Credits.

I served as a consular officer for the State Department from 2011 until March of this year, and witnessed the use of the public-charge ineligibility firsthand. As a visa officer in countries like Nigeria and Nicaragua, I judged the worthiness of immigrant applicants and their US-citizen loved ones based on their wealth and privilege. That’s bad enough; the public-charge designation has long been a racist, classist tool. But with these new regulations, the Trump team has found a way to use government bureaucracy to maximize the suffering of immigrants. Far from expanding the public-charge ineligibility, we should abandon it, just as we renounced discriminatory immigration policies like literacy tests and statutory bans on those with HIV/AIDS.

Rules about public charges have masked discrimination in the immigration process for more than a century. One of the first pieces of federal immigration policy was the Immigration Act of 1882, which required immigration officials to bar entry for “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Proposed by nativist congressmen from New York and Massachusetts, the purpose of the “public charge” was to empower immigration officers to prevent the migration of Irish Catholics to the United States. The rule was amended in 1891 and 1917 to make sure such “undesirable aliens” would be deported.

The immigration officials of that era—State Department consular officers at US embassies and consulates—were the primary enforcers of the public charge. The State Department was mostly white, male, Protestant, and wealthy (“pale, male, and Yale” was the not entirely inaccurate stereotype). As Hidetaka Hirota’s book, Expelling the Poor, outlined, the public-charge label rapidly became the go-to technique for preventing individuals from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa from entering the United States. Even wealthy immigrant applicants found themselves being held inadmissible, because consular officers believed they might someday require governmental assistance or take a job away from an American citizen. From the 1880s to the 1940s, officers used this tool to block hundreds of thousands of people from entering the United States.

Consular bosses back in Washington, DC, gave oral, and therefore difficult-to-challenge, instructions to staff across embassies and consulates in Europe to limit even the small numbers of Jewish refugees from Germany that were legally allowed to enter in the 1930s. Only on the eve of World War II did the Consular Bureau relax its use of the public charge, but it was still used to keep out unmarried women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and all others considered as deviating from the ideal—some might say mythical—American norms. Over time, presidents and courts have limited the power of the public charge to financial requirements and the rules we have today.

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