Impending 'public charge' rule underestimates refugees

Impending 'public charge' rule underestimates refugees
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In the weeks following the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) announcement of a revised public charge rule, many observers have lampooned acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Ken Cuccinelli for his clumsy defense.

Set to go into effect Oct. 15, the final rule will make it permissible to deny legal status to immigrants who utilize public benefits. In response to prompts by reporters about the celebrated sonnet inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, Cuccinelli notably refashioned several of the poem’s lines for his purposes, remarking, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” (The original poem, written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, reads “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”)

On CNN, Cuccinelli appeared to dismiss the poem’s ethos of support for immigrants, observing that it was penned around the same time that Congress approved the nation’s first federal public charge rule in response to waves of new arrivals from Europe.

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It’s true that in the 1880s and 1890s, the U.S. experienced an influx of Italians, Hungarians and other peoples fleeing poverty and ethnic persecution in southern and Eastern Europe. 

Cuccinelli is also correct about the timing of the first federal public charge provision: it appeared in 1882 as part of the legislation that universally banned Chinese immigrants, one year before Lazarus penned her now-famous paean to new arrivals.

However, Cuccinelli is dead wrong if he aims to compare that 19th century public charge rule with the measure set for implementation this October. Of the many notable similarities between Lazarus’s time and our own — new technologies, widening economic inequality, heavy influence by private interests on public policy — the only one germane to Mr. Cuccinelli’s position at the helm of a national agency charged with overseeing legal immigration is that, in both eras, displaced and desperate men, women and children turned to the United States for assistance.

The 1882 public charge rule established guidelines for that system of legal immigration, barring persons who would depend primarily on outside aid; in 2019, DHS’s new rule threatens to exclude any immigrant who comes near it.

A public charge is a person who cannot live independently without substantial support from the government. Measures to bar likely public charges have always existed, but DHS’s final rule breaks from established doctrine by making any use of public aid — regardless of type, duration, or extent — grounds for status denial and removal.

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Immigration policy analysts on both sides of the political aisle agree that the new rule sets an absurdly low standard of eligibility for public charge status. It will force millions of immigrants to forego or disenroll from legally available benefits.

Cuccinelli’s stated preference for people “who can stand on their own two feet” implies that immigrants who accept public aid cannot support themselves without it.

He gravely underestimates them. The hundreds of thousands of people who have fled escalating gang violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in the past few years have demonstrated great resolve and resourcefulness in getting themselves and their children to safety.

Starting this October, immigrants seeking protection in the U.S. will be forced to forego the public aid to which they are legally entitled; they will survive without it. The perversity lies in making them do it. After all, even U.S. citizens struggle to survive on entry level wages.

It’s easy to make this about the money. Many have already explained that most welfare is purely supplemental, that undocumented immigrants take less public welfare than native-born Americans do and

that because they pay taxes, most immigrants have a net positive lifetime impact on government assets. What makes the new public charge rule despicable is not that its premises about resource allocation are wrong. It’s that it punishes refugees and other immigrants for the impoverished circumstances they deliberately chose to flee and, ultimately, makes it more difficult for them to truly escape those conditions.

Like the immigrants of Cuccinelli’s own Irish-Italian ancestry who arrived here destitute in the late nineteenth century, poor Central American migrants will “stand on their own two feet,” as people the world over are wont to do, with or without assistance. It remains to be seen how Cuccinelli and his associates will be judged by future generations for refusing to recognize these migrants’ equality with immigrants past.

Julia C. Frankenbach is the National Grants Assistant at the Tahirih Justice Center, a Washington, D.C.-based national nonprofit supporting immigrant survivors of gender-based violence. She holds an M.A. in U.S. immigration history from the University of Colorado at Boulder. All opinions are her own and do not reflect the official position of the Tahirih Justice Center.