In Washington, D.C., presidential administrations commonly seek to bury bad news or unpopular decisions late by releasing them late on Friday afternoons. Perhaps it’s telling, then, that the Trump administration tried to bury its latest attack on U.S. immigrant communities even deeper—by announcing it on a Saturday night.
The administration’s proposed new rule changes the country’s longstanding approach to determining which legal immigrants to the United States will be granted green cards (both those already here legally and those seeking visas from abroad). The new rule would significantly expand the list of benefits immigration officials would consider when determining whether or not an immigrant should be granted a green card. Now, in addition to cash benefits like supplemental security income, the government would consider immigrants’ use of these additional public programs as a “heavily weighted negative factor” in applications for long-term residency:
- Medicaid (except for some emergency and school-based benefit programs);
- Low-income prescription drug subsidies under Medicare Part D;
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps);
- Section 8 housing assistance; and
- Public housing.
This represents a dramatic change to the U.S. immigration system—government estimates suggest it will affect around 382,000 immigrants each year. Many of them have U.S.-citizen children.
Identifying Potential “Public Charges”
For over a century, the United States has considered whether immigrants are likely to become “public charges” when determining whether or not to grant them long-term legal residency in the country. The calculation includes a range of factors, including immigrants’ ages, health, and educational and professional backgrounds.
Additionally, since the late 1990s, the United States has weighed immigrants’ usage of public cash benefits—Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the like. If U.S. immigration officials see that an immigrant has used these benefits in the past or deems them likely to rely on them in the future, current policy directs them to count this against his or her application for long-term residency in the United States.
That’s where the Trump administration’s weekend proposal comes in. With these new “heavily weighted negative factors,” the Department of Homeland Security seeks to “ensure” that immigrants applying to live and work in the United States “are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations.” Or, as it bluntly describes the goal elsewhere, the rule aims at “minimizing the financial burden of aliens on the U.S. social safety net.”
“This isn’t only a brutal, cruel public policy approach to family life. It also reflects significant misunderstanding of the current state of U.S. immigration—and the defining characteristics of U.S. immigrants.”
Will it work? Well, the administration’s stated goal simplifies its policymaking to tautology. If the United States threatens to withhold long-term legal status from immigrants who use public food, housing, and/or health care benefit programs, two things will necessarily occur: 1) people granted green cards will be those who do not use these programs, and 2) people hoping to apply for and obtain green cards will be less likely to use these programs. Indeed, reports suggest that some immigrant families began withdrawing from public benefit programs before the rule was officially announced—for fear of jeopardizing their legal status.
There is some indication that this—further terrorizing immigrants from engaging with public institutions—may be central to the administration’s actual goals. Indeed, the administration’s cost/benefit calculations count these as savings for the public; it even sums up by drily noting that “the proposed rule may decrease disposable income and increase the poverty of certain families and children, including U.S. citizen children.”
But there are other considerations—and other goals—beyond forcing immigrant parents to choose between feeding their children today or losing their legal status tomorrow. This isn’t only a brutal, cruel public policy approach to family life. It also reflects significant misunderstanding of the current state of U.S. immigration—and the defining characteristics of U.S. immigrants. What follows is an exploration of common misconceptions of U.S. immigrants and their families, including excerpts from interviews conducted with new members to Minnesota’s Green Card Voices Project, who I interviewed last fall.
Forcing a Choice between Residency and Providing for Their Families
“I remember once talking Spanish with my daughter, some woman said to me, ‘Hey, you’re in America, you should speak English.’ And then my daughter watched me and I watched her. And my daughter was scared…The only thing that came to my mind was, that woman, I can’t pay the price for your ignorance. You know, you only speak one language. Too bad. And I said that in my brokeback English. But I didn’t want to offend nobody. I wanted to say, hey, c’mon, she’s a little girl here, and you scared my daughter, you know, but the worst part of it was that this year, twenty-five years later, I was speaking Spanish by phone with Latino media and another woman came and said to me, ‘Hey, sir, you’re in America, you should speak English here.’ Twenty-five years later!” – Miguel
The first—and probably the biggest—oversight of the administration’s proposal is that it largely presents immigrants as a static group somehow separate and different from American citizens. It frames non-citizens in the United States as potential fiscal drains on public budgets, but does not meaningfully engage the inevitable blurring of lines between immigrant and native-born U.S. communities. Now, as always, the legal immigrants subject to public charge consideration have often spent years in the United States establishing families and careers. Many have fallen in love with American citizens and are parents to native-born U.S. citizen children. Nearly 18 million U.S. children have at least one immigrant parent—that’s over one-quarter of U.S. kids. Around 90 percent of those kids are native-born U.S. citizens.
Of course, the administration’s expanded definition of which public benefits count towards a public charge definition will impact millions of children in the United States, whether or not they happen to be native-born U.S. citizens. The new proposed rule reads, “the direct receipt of public benefits by those [U.S. citizen] children would not factor into the public charge inadmissibility determination,” but this is only true in a narrow sense. That is, while these young U.S. citizens do not directly collect food stamps or public housing benefits, they do rely upon them for nutrition and shelter. For these kids, these public benefits aren’t amorphous budget lines. These programs help them eat. They help them get medical care. They help them sleep in safe, warm homes.
“…it’s not only cruel to destabilize families in this way—it’s bad long-term economic policy…”
This presents legal U.S. immigrants—who have followed all of our system’s rules—with two cruel, brutal options. If they rely upon food stamps to feed themselves and their children, they significantly increase the chances that they will be denied long-term legal residency in the United States.
Their other option is little better. If, instead, they choose to forgo food stamps (or Medicaid, or public housing benefits), their children’s lives will be significantly worsened. Research is clear that family income, health, and housing stability during children’s early years significantly influence their long-term life outcomes. This is particularly concerning, since children of immigrants are somewhat more likely to be living in low-income households than the U.S. average.
All Americans have an interest in these children’s long-term development. Given research on the long-term effects of child poverty, and the positive ways that public assistance programs can ameliorate those, it’s not only cruel to destabilize families in this way—it’s bad long-term economic policy: these children will make up an increasing share of the United States’ future labor pool.
Immigrants’ Community Contributions and Their Desire to Integrate
“When I came here, I didn’t know the language. And I understand that it’s hard and I am learning…And I was so upset of like, people thinking if you don’t understand English, you don’t understand what’s going on in the world. I was so mad about this. And when I came to school, yes, I struggled with English, I did all my best, but I proved that it doesn’t mean that we are uneducated or we have limitations or all these things. I graduated from high school with a 4.0. I was saying, ‘I’m going to do this, not because I was born learning the language.’ I was running after my teachers to get her to explain things to me, going after school for help, going to the library every Saturday and Sunday, doing double what the normal person would do, just to prove that I’m no different from you.” – Zaynab
The rhetoric about immigrants being a drag on society doesn’t bear up against the facts. In truth, and despite the many challenges that immigrants face in the United States, research suggests that they are model community members. For example, one 2013 study found that immigrants were less likely to engage in a wide range of “antisocial” activities than native-born Americans—from bullying to stealing to animal abuse. The results were so striking, they led the researchers to muse, “If increased immigration lowers the crime rate, then can immigration be thought of as a crime prevention strategy?” Research suggests that cities which are more friendly to immigrants are stronger, healthier, and wealthier communities. In its review of available research, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that immigrants in the United States are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
“Cities which are more friendly to immigrants are stronger, healthier, and wealthier communities.”
What’s more, educational data on these families is encouraging. There is recent evidence that the children of immigrants who arrived in recent waves are actually assimilating so quickly that their educational and professional progress is not being noticed by researchers. Nearly one-quarter of U.S. children speak a non-English language a home—the majority of whom are native-born U.S. citizens. Data from a range of states suggest that, over time, English language learning children are amongst the most successful students in U.S. schools—especially once they become fully proficient in English (as evidence from Texas, California, New York, and Oregon shows).
Immigrants’ Education Levels, Skills, and Use of Public Benefits
“You know, there is anger amongst people thinking that we are taking everything, but when you look at the statistical data, we really aren’t taking much. We’re giving more than taking, but that’s the kind of factual information that’s missing.” – Masami
One of the major problems with the administration’s new public charge rule is that it is inadequately attentive to diversity within the population of immigrants to the United States. For instance, as a group, immigrants are simultaneously more likely than native-born Americans to have a college degree and to lack a high school diploma. A large percentage—nearly half—of recently-arrived immigrants are college graduates. Just one-third of all people in the United States can say the same. Since the U.S. unemployment rate for college graduates is under 3 percent, it’s safe to say that most of these highly-educated folks won’t suffer because of the administration’s rule change.
Meanwhile, 19 percent of recent immigrants have not finished high school, compared with around 13 percent of U.S. residents. On the one hand, this appears to be central to the administration’s reasoning—the new regulation aims to filter out immigrants from that second, less-educated, lower-skilled group. In the administration’s telling, these immigrants are expensive drains “on the U.S. social safety net.”
“From 2014 to 2016, 92 percent of people using public benefits in the United States were U.S. citizens.”
But even these folks, who arrive at the bottom of the U.S. socioeconomic ladder, belie stereotypes. In its justification for the new rule, the administration analyzed the U.S. Census’ Survey of Income and Program Participation. It found that 37.2 percent of U.S. citizens with less than a high school diploma rely on public benefits. Just 28.2 percent of noncitizens with less than a high school diploma rely on them.
There is some intra-field debate over the precise degree to which legal documented immigrants utilize public benefits—and whether the overall value of the benefits they use is higher than the value used by low-income native-born Americans. However, researchers at the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C.) have found that immigrant families are not disproportionate users of public benefits. What’s more, as immigrants integrate and become more familiar with American society and its economic opportunities, some research suggests that their fiscal impact shifts—they begin earning enough such that their tax payments balance out the public benefits they receive.
What’s more, immigrants make up a small portion of overall public benefit users. A Migration Policy Institute report from earlier this year found that from 2014 to 2016, 92 percent of people using public benefits in the United States were U.S. citizens. Indeed, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that, over time, immigrants have a “generally positive” impact on the federal budget.
Immigrants’ Willingness to Work
“Being a green card holder, it’s very hard. Especially as a college student, I have to pay a lot…how are we gonna make this money? How are we going to do this? I have six jobs right now, as a college student.” – Zaynab
The Trump administration claims that its new public charge rule will push immigrants off public benefit programs and into self-sufficient work. But the Migration Policy report mentioned above found that, in families that were receiving public benefits, 63 percent of noncitizens were employed, compared to just 51 percent of U.S.-born individuals.
Indeed, there is a persistent gap in employment rates between immigrant and U.S.-born men without a high school degree. In this group, immigrant men are significantly more likely to be employed than their U.S.-born peers—and this has been the case for more than half a century.
if the administration wants to see fewer immigrants (and, for that matter, native-born Americans) using public benefits, it could instead engage seriously in policymaking that would raise wages for these willing workers.
Indeed, upon reflection, the administration’s new regulation hints at a deeper problem in the U.S. labor market: if research generally shows that U.S. immigrant families are eager, hardworking community members, why would they need public benefits in the first place? In other words, if the administration wants to see fewer immigrants (and, for that matter, native-born Americans) using public benefits, it could instead engage seriously in policymaking that would raise wages for these willing workers. It’s disturbing and revealing that it has instead chosen to threaten these hardworking community members to choose between sustenance and—in many cases—keeping their families together.
Political Benefits for the Few
“It’s unfair. As a student, I have passion. I want to meet new people, try different things, try different majors, try different sports. I can’t do all these things. Because if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna lose the jobs. If I lose the jobs, I’m gonna lose the money…this is very hard for me as an immigrant. Especially with the executive orders against minorities and people with low income, and especially my religion. I don’t sleep much. It’s very hard…We are human like everyone. We’ve had struggles. We’ve had horrible times. But we still have dreams.” – Zaynab
Our immigration system has been in need of comprehensive reform for some years—it’s been an unreachable goal for each of the last two presidential administrations. Rather than take up this productive work, the Trump administration’s proposal bypasses Congress and threatens real damage to families.
It bears repeating: the families targeted by the administration’s proposed policy are legal immigrants. They have gone through the United States’ official processes—they followed the rules, got in the oft-mentioned “lines” to immigrate to the United States, applied for visas, and built lives and families here. In many cases, their children are native-born American citizens.
“If the administration wants to see fewer immigrants (and, for that matter, native-born Americans) using public benefits, it could instead engage seriously in policymaking that would raise wages for these willing workers.”
To be fair, there is—troubling, cruel, ugly—precedent for this kind of unilateral immigration policymaking from the executive branch. In his Nazism, the Jews and American Zionism, Hampshire College professor Aaron Berman notes that, in 1930, President Herbert Hoover cited a domestic labor market slackened by the Great Depression as reason to “vigorously…enforce the ‘Likely to Become a Public Charge’ clause and to award visas only to those individuals who could either prove that they had enough savings to care for themselves after they came to the United States or who possessed affidavits from Americans who pledged to provide them with financial support.” This policy remained in place for several years and contributed to the low numbers of Jewish immigrants granted admission to the United States after fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe.
We are fortunate not to be facing a similar global situation today. But, given that the data suggest that immigrants benefit U.S. communities, national prosperity, and our demographic future without imposing any major strain on the federal budget, it’s hard to imagine the substantive utility of making it more difficult for immigrants to secure stable, legal residency here. Naturally, given the controversial nature of U.S. immigration politics, there may be political benefits for the Trump administration. But that is a preciously thin justification for doing real harm to children and their families.
PHOTO CREDIT: Hector Perez, originally from Guatemala, attends a citizenship clinic for assistance in applying for United States citizenship September 13, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Radle/Getty Images)