With Trump’s new immigration rule, a deep bow toward ‘America First’

Steven Senne/AP
Lenita Reason (center), originally from Brazil, stands with her son Michael (left) while displaying a placard during a demonstration outside federal court in Boston on Aug. 14, 2019. The protest was held to call attention to the Trump administration's campaign to end temporary protected status for tens of thousands of immigrants nationwide.

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“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” This twist on Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem, as delivered by Trump immigration official Ken Cuccinelli, represents a new focus: Receipt of a green card or permission to enter the U.S. in the first place will be harder for those of modest means and who use public benefits – or may do so in the future. Merit-based immigration is the new priority, not family unity.

Supporters argue that the new rule prioritizes self-sufficiency, a foundation of U.S. immigration law since the 19th century. To critics of the new policy, however, the change represents no less than a fundamental shift in the meaning of America. A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco charges that the new rule discourages use of public health care programs, and thus endangers community safety in instances of contagious disease.

Barring a court injunction or intervention by Congress, the new system will go into effect Oct. 15.

Why We Wrote This

Who is most deserving of a foothold in America: those in need of help or those who help themselves? The Trump administration’s new immigration rule represents a hard shift toward the latter.

It is perhaps the starkest example yet in the Trump presidency of “America First.” 

Foreigners in the United States, legally present, could find themselves on a flight back to their native land. Families of “mixed status” – typically, noncitizen parents with citizen children – could face a choice of either leaving the U.S. together or splitting up. And over time, the face of American immigration could become whiter and wealthier. 

The Trump administration’s new rule expanding the definition of “public charge” is designed to promote self-sufficiency among noncitizens and prevent them from being a drain on taxpayers, proponents say. The policy, released Monday, will make it harder for legal migrants who use public benefits to obtain green cards, the way station to full citizenship. It will also make it harder for low-income, less-educated foreigners to get into the U.S. in the first place. 

Why We Wrote This

Who is most deserving of a foothold in America: those in need of help or those who help themselves? The Trump administration’s new immigration rule represents a hard shift toward the latter.

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said earlier this week on NPR.

To critics of the new policy, this recasting of the iconic sonnet by Emma Lazarus at the Statue of Liberty – which refers in the original to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – represents no less than a fundamental shift in the meaning of America. 

“The whole mindset of the Founding Fathers was that America is a land of refuge; it’s a place you can come, you can get a new beginning,” says James Hollifield, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and an expert on immigration. “What we’re doing now is essentially criminalizing poverty.” 

What exactly do these new guidelines entail? What is the likely impact? Might the new rule be overturned in court? Here are some answers: 

What is the new rule? 

For many noncitizens already in the U.S. legally, the rule broadens the categories of public assistance that, if used, could be held against someone applying for permanent residency – a green card. Such forms of assistance include Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing. 

For prospective immigrants applying to enter the U.S., immigration officials will judge an applicant’s skills, assets, and health, and thus their ability to avoid reliance on public assistance. This represents a shift to a merit-based system over one that currently privileges family connections. 

“If fully enforced, it’s the most consequential action of this administration in immigration to date, perhaps the most consequential action in decades,” says Mike Howell, a former Department of Homeland Security official and now an adviser at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “In terms of preventing people from coming in, it’s huge. It will certainly add a lot more folks to the ‘to be removed from the interior’ tally.”

Other observers note that this system will make it harder in particular for people from low-income countries to immigrate to the U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants more immigrants from countries like Norway. 

Is anyone exempt? 

The new system, which goes into effect Oct. 15, will not be applied retroactively and will not apply to people renewing their green cards. Also exempt are pregnant women, children, refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants serving in the U.S. military. 

One challenge comes in “mixed-status” families, and the potential for a chilling effect. Some noncitizen parents may fear using benefits for their citizen children, such as food stamps or housing assistance, in the belief that such use could lead to a parent’s deportation.

On Monday, Mr. Cuccinelli said that such use of benefits for citizen children would not be held against a noncitizen parent, but among immigrants, there is still fear. And the impact could be widespread.

“It will diminish many children’s long-term prospects because they won’t receive benefits important to their growth and development, which will weaken the future U.S. workforce,” says Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a statement. 

Noncitizen parents without green cards also face heightened risk of deportation, which could split up families. 

Is this new policy legal? 

Most likely yes, legal experts say. Self-sufficiency has been a foundation of U.S. immigration law since the 19th century. The current law, enacted in 1996, penalized immigrants dependent on cash assistance; the new rule expands the definition of “public charge.”

“Congress does have a say in this,” says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. But “to the extent that Congress does not act, the executive branch can fill that void.”

Defenders note that the Trump administration followed the formal rule-making procedure, including a lengthy public comment period – garnering more than 266,000 comments, a record for DHS. 

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco charges that the new rule discourages use of public health care programs, and thus endangers community safety in instances of contagious disease.

Are immigrants a burden on taxpayers?

A 2017 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that immigration has “an overall positive impact on the long-run economic growth in the U.S.”

But the benefit doesn’t appear until the second generation. First-generation immigrants cost the government about $1,600 per person annually, more than native-born Americans, according to the report. But second-generation Americans outperform the rest of the native-born population.

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