The Trump administration recently proposed to expand who constitutes a “public charge,” a dusty government label from 1882 that is stamped upon immigrants if they or their families are deemed overly dependent on public assistance. The term signals a high likelihood that one will forever burden society.
Previously, the government reserved this label for individuals receiving cash assistance greater than 50 percent of their incomes. The proposed changes now recommend tallying housing, food, cash and health care assistance to determine whether one is a “public charge.” Being classified as a public charge disqualifies one from legal immigration.
On its face, this proposed change may seem only fair to many people. They might argue that we shouldn’t be reaching out to help immigrants when we’ve got our own problems and our own people struggling to make it. Immigrants need to stand in line just like the rest of us. Immigrants are welcome if they are going to contribute to and not drain our society. People may ask: Doesn’t it only seem fair that we utilize our public resources on people who are already citizens and have paid taxes?
What such a perspective, largely held by white Minnesotans like myself, forgets is that there is an immigrant in almost all of us. Unless American Indian or having ancestors forcibly brought to the U.S. through chattel slavery, the vast majority of us are descendants of immigrants who largely came seeking a better life. In Minnesota, almost all of us have immigrant ancestors who settled within the last 175 years, not more than five to six generations deep. My paternal great-grandparents arrived via boat from Germany at Ellis Island in 1923, took the train to Minnesota and settled in the Morgan Park neighborhood of Duluth, where my great-grandfather worked his whole life in the U.S. Steel plant.
And just as there is an immigrant in many of us, there are “public charges” in many of us. In my family of German, Irish and French ancestry, the list of cumulative public charges is long. Both of my grandfathers benefited from the GI Bill of 1944 to publicly fund their undergraduate degrees after returning from World War II. My grandparents and parents benefited from FHA mortgages to publicly assist their housing purchases. My father worked as a public-school administrator and our family had health insurance that was publicly subsidized. Publicly subsidized school lunches nourished me as I grew up.
Were the Department of Homeland Security to utilize the currently proposed formulas to forecast the education, housing, food and health care public assistance that my family would receive over the generations, my great-grandparents might well have been turned back at Ellis Island as public charges.
The idea of public charges and self-sufficiency is part of the American myth that any of us make it on our own. We white Minnesotans often ignore the many ways we’ve all accrued and benefited from public assistance. We routinely fail to acknowledge that most of us are public charges who have received tremendous public support in our pursuits of life, liberty and happiness.
Today I have the privilege of working as a primary care physician in a clinic that serves refugees and immigrants. On a daily basis, I hear stories of hardship that threatened the safety and well-being of them and their families and motivated them to seek a better life in Minnesota. Most of them receive limited public assistance to help them stabilize in their new surroundings.
And I then watch as the vast majority go on to make deep, irreplaceable contributions to building vibrant social, cultural and economic communities in Minnesota.
Rather than looking to expand who constitutes a public charge as an exclusionary tool, we should be acknowledging that most of us benefit from public assistance in one way or another. We should be working to transform the negative connotation of public assistance as a depleting “charge” on society and instead recognize it as a public good necessary for the health and well-being of our society.
We should be recognizing public support as fundamental to building the social cohesion needed to knit the fabric of our communities for ourselves and future generations.
Michael Westerhaus is a physician and assistant professor of global medicine at the University of Minnesota.