President Donald Trump’s crusade against immigrants took a particularly nasty turn this week with the release of a rule that takes aim at legal immigrants — the ones who in previous times were praised even by immigration hard-liners for “waiting their turn” and playing by the rules.
That, apparently, is no longer good enough.
The administration has rolled out needlessly stringent standards on the “public charge” rule that historically has been used to bar entry to those highly likely to become public burdens. The rule typically has been narrowly applied, and with good reason. Stories of immigrants who came to this country penniless and went on to enrich themselves and the nation are legion. Like most immigrants, those who wait years to enter the U.S. legally are coming to work, and work hard. But they don’t always come with a big bankroll and fat assets.
Trump now wants to raise the bar so high that America could lose out on immigrants that an aging nation with labor shortages desperately needs, at the same time striking even more fear into immigrant communities. There has been no explosion, by the way, in legal entries. Numbers are capped by country, and annual legal migration to the U.S. has hovered around the 1 million mark for a decade.
The new rules would be more restrictive about income. Legal immigrants would have to make close to $15 an hour — 250% above the federal poverty line and twice the federal minimum wage — before their income would count in their favor. Anything lower could be considered a negative factor and jeopardize their status. That alone could exclude millions of U.S. jobs typically taken by new immigrants. Minnesota, where labor shortages are starting to threaten business growth, has many such jobs in nursing homes, stores and elsewhere. Some of them are filled by the state’s foreign-born population of about 500,000, and more are needed.
In defending the new restrictions, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, offered a disturbing version of the famed poem that has long graced the Statue of Liberty with the words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” In Cuccinelli’s version these inspiring words are reduced to “Give me your tired, poor who can stand on their own two feet and won’t be a public charge.” Tellingly, he added that the poem was referring to “people coming from Europe.”
Cuccinelli knows very well that the system has long had safeguards. Legal entrants already run a gantlet of background checks, fees, interviews, medical examinations and more. Most importantly, unless they are refugees (who are exempt from the new public charge standard), they must have a sponsor who signs a long-term contract of financial responsibility. Sponsors can be sued to recover government costs if the immigrant does get public assistance. Newcomers are also barred from most types of public assistance for the first five years, according to Lenore Millibergity, interim director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.
“There simply is no need for this rule,” she said. “The purpose, I will just flat-out say, is a racist attack on immigration. It is meant to keep out people the administration has decided aren’t our sort. There is no other explanation for it.”
Millibergity is now fielding calls from frightened immigrants who thought they did everything right. They came legally, they got jobs, paid taxes. Now, the mere act of applying for a green card — with its strict public charge evaluation — could cost them everything. The new rule is not supposed to be retroactive, but in the future those who are denied, Millibergity said, will be marked for deportation. Right now, she said, she is trying to reassure panicked refugees — who typically come with almost nothing — that they are, indeed, exempt.
Millibergity takes heart from the fact that she has gotten other calls as well — calls from Minnesotans sickened by the new rules, asking what they can do.
We should all be sickened and concerned. There’s more at stake here than a few changes to immigration policy. This administration is trying to change something fundamental to this country’s deepest-held values. Emma Lazarus’ inspired poem has always been more than high-minded words. It is a distillation of the promise that is America.