Since the dramatic beginning of his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump has been painting a grisly caricature of illegal immigration that we all, by now, are familiar with. He has cherry-picked horror stories of MS-13 killings and undocumented immigrants stealing jobs in order to rile up his base and attempt to justify his controversial policies at the border. When accused of racism, Trump has always claimed to be championing the American people and promoting respect for the legal immigration process, targeting only people who were breaking the law. This defense, like much of his staff, is no longer working for him.
The White House announced this August that the Trump Administration will be adding serious restrictions as to which legally present immigrants are eligible to apply for permanent residency and citizenship. Called “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” the new rules will make it considerably more difficult for immigrants already living in the US to get green cards or citizenship if they receive any public benefits. Under this new bill, while they may have legal temporary residency, people can be refused green cards if they receive things like food stamps or Medicaid. Since a green card provides permanent legal residency and usually a path to citizenship, getting denied one could eventually mean getting deported.
I find it hard to believe that Trump’s war against undocumented immigrants is based solely on the fact that they were breaking the law by entering illegally when he is actively attacking legal, documented, and law-abiding residents. The changes to the green card and citizenship eligibility requirements are clearly designed to prevent poor people from immigrating to the United States, regardless of how they do it. So much for the American Dream. Not only will temporary residents face the possibility of deportation, experts also predict that many residents going through the green card or naturalization process may opt-out of public aid that they need and qualify for so that it does not affect their ability to get green cards. People could be giving up their access to affordable medical care and their ability to feed their families out of fear that the Trump administration will deny them residency and deport them for not being rich and white enough.
The Director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, has praised the changes as a way to promote “self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to or to stay in the United States.” These qualities are things he says he sees as “core values” that are necessary to achieve the American dream. By rejecting naturalization candidates who use public benefits, however, the administration is not “promoting self-reliance.” Instead, they are forcing underprivileged people to either go without important resources or leave the country altogether. There is only so much financial self-reliance that is possible when someone is fleeing violence in Central America with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and Trump and his associates know this. Looking at whether an immigrant gets public assistance has nothing to do with judging their character or encouraging them to be independent, but it has everything to do with picking out who is financially stable and who is not. The immigrants who came to America in the early 1900s may not have received public benefits, but that was only because public benefits were not available to them. While commendable, this should not be the standard because we now have the means to provide help. If America, a country full of the descendants of people who left all their possessions in the homeland and arrived in Ellis Island with nothing, denies entry to immigrants because they are impoverished, it is nothing but an absolute betrayal of the American Dream.
It is also a dangerous line to walk for a president who has a history of stoking racial tensions. It certainly does little for the argument that his tough border policies are designed only to stop the flow of immigrants crossing illegally. By passing these changes, Trump will be sharply limiting immigration altogether and particularly from countries in Central America, Africa, and the Middle East, where many people are leaving due to poverty or violence and thus are more likely to need public assistance. The changes Trump plans to enact seem to me like they are designed to shift the demographics of immigration to the US.
That’s not to mention what this policy might do to the xenophobia that has only been growing in the United States since Trump’s election. The administration has widened their focus from illegal immigrants to lawful residents trying to enter legally, blurring the lines between enforcing border laws and targeting people of certain ethnic backgrounds. As the National Immigration Law Center put it, the regulation was made to “disenfranchise communities of color and favor the white and wealthy.” I fear that for many of Trump’s supporters who already harbor racist ideas, the change will be interpreted as permission from the president to shift the enemy from “illegal immigrants” to “all Latinos,” if it hasn’t already.
1.4 million people could be affected by the public charge regulation. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that only 27% of green card holders who the policy could potentially affect are from Europe, Canada, or Oceania. In contrast, 1.5 million Irishmen came to America between 1845 and 1855 during the Potato Famine, and none were told that they were too poor to stay. If we didn’t tell white people they were too poor, we shouldn’t send that message to people of color. The disparity is not only fundamentally unfair; it is un-American. The dream is for everyone.