In his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump boasted about his recent executive orders and promised to continue to push an immigration agenda that will prove deeply harmful and divisive.
So far, the president’s immigration orders have had or threatened to have dire consequences for citizens and non-citizens alike—from tearing families apart to creating a climate of fear within whole communities. A leaked executive order threatens to undercut basic lifelines for low-income immigrant families, and could have serious long-term implications for us all, regardless of immigration status. As proposed, the executive order would deny admission to anyone deemed likely to receive a wide range of income-based supports that low-wage workers and their families, native-born as well as foreign-born, rely on in tough times. This proposal is not only inhumane, it is grossly unfair to millions of taxpaying Lawful Permanent Residents who would be denied benefits.
For nearly a century, U.S immigration law has used the “public charge” test to ensure that newcomers do not end up relying on the government for their “subsistence” or basic survival, such as using public cash assistance—like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program—as their primary source of support. But it has never been used to completely exclude people who will be working their way up from low-wage jobs. In fact, that is the traditional story of immigrants in America. Trump’s proposal, however, would drastically reverse longstanding guidelines for who would be excluded from the country.
The proposal, for example, could make someone inadmissible to the United States if the Department of Homeland Security determines that she may at some point in the future attempt to access public nutrition assistance or health care. It would also punish permanent residents with deportation if they use these same types of programs within the first five years of entering the United States, a severe consequence only currently used in extremely rare circumstances.
In another blow to immigrant families struggling to make ends meet, the draft order would expand the list of “federal means-tested benefits” that permanent residents are barred from using during their first five years in the country, potentially cutting them off from a much broader range of federal income-based programs regardless of the circumstances. Similarly, the order would prohibit taxpaying immigrant parents who lack a Social Security number from claiming the federal Child Tax Credit, a proven tool for combating child poverty that has long had bipartisan support.
The order’s objective to penalize immigrants with limited financial means—both those who aspire to enter the country and those who have recently arrived—threatens family unity in two ways. First, it would make it nearly impossible for low-income immigrants to reunite with loved ones through a family-based visa, a process that can already take several years and one that the president suggested should be replaced by a merit-based system. Second, it would put immigrant parents in the impossible position of allowing their children to go hungry or to risk deportation simply by applying for federal assistance.
It’s important to note that many of the draft order’s provisions would need to be ironed out in a regulatory process, and it remains unclear which means-tested programs would ultimately be included. In addition, some proposed provisions would require congressional approval. Without doubt, however, the issuance of the order would create immediate fear and confusion among immigrant families and the people and programs that serve them. Indeed, most concerning is the chilling effect this proposal would have, by deterring immigrants from seeking potentially lifesaving services for themselves or their children. Already state program administrators and health clinic workers are reporting that some parents are withdrawing their citizen children from critical programs simply because of the uncertainty created by this order and the fear of repercussions.
Lessons from the past serve as a caution against such overly restrictive proposals. After the passage of the 1996 immigration and welfare reform laws, which denied certain benefits to recently arrived Lawful Permanent Residents, research shows that participation of immigrants and their families in public benefit programs dropped sharply, compromising the health and well-being of low-income immigrants as well as their citizen children. And contrary to the president’s claim that immigrants strain public resources, a recent analysis shows that low-income immigrant households remain much less likely to participate in safety net programs like TANF or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—even though they are eligible—than households headed by people born in the United States.
In response to the extreme hardship caused by the 1996 restrictions, subsequent legislation restored eligibility for children and other vulnerable populations. For example, nutrition assistance under SNAP was later reinstated for qualified children (without a five-year bar), and states now have the option to provide federally funded health care to lawfully residing children and pregnant women regardless of how long they have been in the country—an option that more than half of the states have opted to include in their policies. These improvements reflect the common-sense principle that communities are better off when all babies and children have access to basic health care and nutrition.
Thus, the president’s proposed order represents a step backward, virtually pulling the entire safety net out from under taxpaying immigrant families. Ultimately millions of children, 88 percent of whom are U.S. born citizens, would suffer the most severe consequences. Access to preventative health care and nutrition helps improve childhood outcomes, which extends to better education and employment outcomes in adulthood. Similarly, the proposal’s restriction on access to the Child Tax Credit would directly harm 4.1 million U.S. citizen children living with at least one unauthorized parent, putting them at greater risk of falling into poverty.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that immigrants of all financial means significantly contribute to our nation’s economy, and they and their children are vital to our country’s future prosperity. In fact, children of immigrants represent one quarter of our increasingly diverse U.S. child population, and therefore will make up a critical segment of the future American workforce. Preventing these kids from having their most fundamental needs met and driving them further into poverty will only serve to undermine our economic prospects for generations to come.
We must reject this dangerous and shortsighted proposal, and others like it, which seek to divide our communities and undermine low-income, working families. Ultimately, our nation’s leaders should be pushing for policies that will help all our children thrive—regardless of where their parents were born—for their sake and for that of the entire country.