Photo courtesy of Geoff Livingston / Flickr

Immigration as a Meritocracy

This September, President Trump proposed regulations that would allow green card and visa applicants to be turned down based on income or education levels. If it is deemed that your background makes you likely to apply for certain benefits in the future, then you can also be rejected from the country.

This merit-based system is a not so cleverly concealed way to favor immigrants who are English-speaking, educated, and high-earning. If these regulations become common practice for immigration quotas, people with medical conditions may also be excluded. Restrictions like this would not only discriminate against people, but also separate families. The traditional American dream entices people from around the world because it promotes the chance for a fresh start. The proposed regulations are an inversion of this idealistic dream. It seems that Trump is making immigration possible only for individuals who are already educated and financially stable, in order to ensure that so they don’t “steal” from native-born Americans.

The proposed regulation expands existing interpretations of what is considered a "public charge.” Under the current rules dating back to 1999, a public charge is an immigrant who uses or has previously used cash welfare programs. The new rules the Trump administration is proposing would also consider the usage of non-cash programs. This could range from subsidized insurance, to a free bus pass, to federal emergency relief after a hurricane.

This wouldn't lead to automatic rejections for incoming immigrants, but would be considered negative factors in an already complex application. The already bureaucratic process of applying for citizenship would now include subjective criteria. The proposed rule would punish immigrants that use small amounts of benefits but are nevertheless still hardworking. It would also penalize people who use government benefits even once, distorting the definition of a “public charge.”

Public assistance programs are crucial in helping those going through temporary hardships. They support people who work but don't make enough to survive on their own. Many people cycle in and out of public assistance during their lifetimes. It doesn’t mean they’re going to stay that way—and it doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of a chance to live in this country.

Overall, immigrants use benefits at lower rates than Americans and also contribute to society through work and other aspects. Certain programs like education and health care are more than “handouts”—they are an investment, helping ensure that families are healthy, educated, and able to work and support themselves over the course of generations. Lower-income immigrant families might, for a time, receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes. But that is a temporary equilibrium. As one Federal Reserve summary puts it, the long-run fiscal impact is positive while the short-run effect is negative, but in a small way.

Though Trump’s proposed policy will likely collapse when faced with legal scrutiny, it might have already prevented immigrants from applying for benefits in the first place. For example, immigrant parents may be wary of applying for food stamps for their children, for fear it will affect their citizenship application.

The proposal is devised around a cutthroat worldview and leads people to believe that a dollar spent helping an immigrant is a dollar stolen from a native-born American. Immigrants are viewed as a drain on public resources in the most misleading way. The American people do not provide a net fiscal benefit to the government, regardless of their citizenship or legal status.

In my opinion, by the proposal’s logic, Americans who receive indirect government aid should be viewed as drains on the economy as well. There is no difference between helping an immigrant family get off their feet and helping a native-born American. Immigrant families work, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities. Helping immigrant families is helping the economy, and hindering immigrants hinders the economy. If America is a nation with a history of immigration, then immigrants steal nothing.

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