The Trump Administration’s War on Legal Immigrants Continues

During his campaign and presidency, Donald Trump has consistently peddled the lie that undocumented immigrants are criminals. Once elected, his travel ban spread the lie that immigrants and refugees were terrorists. Now, with a proposed new rule, we see the third pillar of these lies with the administration attempting to paint legal immigrants as “government moochers.”

Before getting into the particulars of the new rule, let’s dispense with the lie.

The animating premise of the draft executive order—“that households headed by aliens are much more likely than those headed by citizens to use federal means-tested public benefits”—does not hold up under closer scrutiny. The National Academies of Science, in a seminal 2016 study on the fiscal impacts of immigration, found that immigrants of all ages except for the elderly use fewer public benefits than the U.S. born.

For some background on this, since 1999 the federal government has been able to deny a visa or green card to immigrants who are considered a “public charge.” That has typically been understood to apply to immigrants who, within their first five years of entry, use cash welfare programs (i.e., TANF) or long-term institutional care funded by the government.

This week we learned that the administration has prepared a draft executive order that would expand the definition of “public charge” to immigrants who use other benefits, including:

  • some “educational benefits,” including use of Head Start for children
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • use of any subsidies, or purchase of subsidized insurance, under the Affordable Care Act
  • food stamps
  • Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assistance
  • Housing benefits, like Section 8
  • Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • transit vouchers

For the most part, these programs provide health and educational benefits for the children of immigrants, who tend to be American citizens. In addition, the proposed rule includes this:

…the draft order proposes limiting eligibility for the child tax credit to immigrants with valid social security numbers. The result: Unauthorized households with children (more than three-quarters of whom are U.S. citizens) would be ineligible for benefits, even as they pay taxes and have income thresholds low enough to otherwise qualify.

If approved, the executive order would face massive legal challenges. But let’s be very clear about the intent behind it.

Changes to admissibility criteria could move the United States toward a selection system that favors those with more education and higher skills over family relationships. This shift could effectively accomplish a dramatic change in the legal immigration system through the back door—via regulation, not legislation. In the long term, such changes would be more likely to exclude immigrants from Latin America and Southeast Asia, who tend to have relatively low socioeconomic status, as well as elderly immigrants who might have more difficulty meeting the public charge criteria.

Almost a year ago, Joshua Green described Stephen Miller’s goal when it comes to immigration policy.

“The media tends to cover immigration issues through the frame of how it impacts everybody but actual citizens of the United States,” Miller complains…

Miller and Bannon want Trump to undertake a radical recasting of U.S. policies, from immigration to trade to taxation, that would invert this frame by making the interests of [white] U.S. citizens (or what Miller and Bannon perceive to be their interests) predominant, almost to the point of exclusivity.

I would disagree a bit with how that is framed. Miller and the rest of the Trump administration are attempting to exaggerate the costs associated with immigration via lies, while completely ignoring the benefits, many of which accrue to U.S. citizens.

It is important to know that, much as Trump’s rhetoric about immigration and crime/terrorism is not based in fact, the truth is that small businesses are struggling to grow right now due to a lack of immigrant labor while refugees/immigrants are the one bright spot for many otherwise dying towns across this country. That is why, for white nationalism to succeed, it has to be based on fear-mongering lies.

Given that immigrants actually use fewer public services than native-born Americans and play a critical role in our economy, it is important to ask why this administration is so intent on finding ways to deny them entry and/or deport them. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure that out.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.