Trump’s administration can now bar immigrants for being too poor


On Monday, the Trump administration finalized its “public charge” rule, which will more forcefully impose a health and wealth test on people seeking green cards or temporary visas in the United States.

The 800-page final rule itself begins: “This final rule amends DHS regulations by prescribing how DHS will determine whether an alien applying for admission or adjustment of status is inadmissible to the United States … because he or she is likely at any time to become a public charge.”

U.S. officials under the finalized rule will be required to look at immigrants’ current or likely future need for help in the form of things like Medicaid, housing vouchers, and food stamps. Currently, those officials ask people seeking green cards to prove they will not be a burden, but this new rule requires the officials to look at immigrants’ health and monetary needs for basic programs intended to help people.

This means any immigrant with a medical condition and no subsidized form of health insurance would fail the test. The rule also asks prospective immigrants to make at least 125%-250% above the federal poverty line. A report released last year from the Center for American Progress found that 100 million Americans — almost a third of the population — would not meet these criteria. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent newsroom housed within the Center for American Progress.)

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, addressed reporters in the rarely-used White House briefing room to explain the final rule, which goes into effect for all immigrants in mid-October.

Cuccinelli began his statement with an odd defense of his own immigrant ancestors’ economic well-being as they assimilated into the country, to attempt to paint the rule in a reasonable light. He did not mention whether his family was fleeing persecution, or if they came through Ellis Island, in view of the Statue of Liberty and its “New Colossus” poem by Emma Lazarus.

Lazarus’ poem ends:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Cuccinelli was asked about the poem, and if it still applied in the United States during the briefing, and his reply was, “I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty,” and explained that America has always been a welcoming country.

“President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” Cuccinelli said. He defined a public charge as “an individual who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36 month period.”

Immigration advocates quickly pointed out that this policy gives an explicit advantage  to wealthy immigrants over poorer ones, which can track to a preference for people from richer, often whiter countries.

The National Immigration Law Center on Monday announced that it intends to file a lawsuit to stop the rule, Marielena Hincapié, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

“This news is a cruel new step toward weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: you are not welcome here. …We look forward to seeing Trump in court — again — and to seeing justice prevail,” she said.

Lambda Legal, the nation’s largest LGBTQ legal advocacy organization, said on Twitter that the rule was “flat-out inhumane,” and would “force people to have to make the choice between feeding their families, caring for their medical needs, or seeking documented resident status.”

The Migration Policy Institute said in a recent report, “We estimate that 2.3 million of the 4 million legally present noncitizens who arrived during the past five years (56%) do not have incomes sufficient to meet the 250 percent standard. In fact, 40% of U.S.-born persons would be unable to meet that threshold.”

This policy announcement comes just days after massive raids targeting largely Latinx immigrants working in chicken processing plants in Mississippi, and racist statements President Donald Trump made about sending nonwhite lawmakers back to their home countries.

Asked why the Latinx community should not feel targeted by this administration, Cuccinelli replied, “There’s no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them. This will apply across the world,” before making a similar defense of past immigration rules that might be seen to target Italian or Irish immigrants over 100 years ago.

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