Please DON'T ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ...’

A few years ago, during a project on Russian Jewish immigrants, I came upon Malka Chavanowa, who in 1905 had arrived at Ellis Island with her 10-year-old son. Beside her name were initials, LPC, which turned out to stand for, “likely to become a public charge.” Although Malka was allowed to pass through Ellis Island (she would become matriarch of Arnoff’s Moving and Storage), women who arrived without a husband either at their side or waiting on the pier were labeled LPC, and many were put back on steerage to be returned to Europe.  

At the time, I was outraged at U.S. Immigration’s assumption that a woman was incapable of sustaining herself. It never occurred to me that becoming a “public charge,” was part of the web of obstacles that immigrants still face — that is, until President Trump’s recent executive decision to deny green cards to any immigrant who has applied for one of a range of federal public assistance programs. 

The fact is, U.S. Immigration has long used “public charge” to refer to someone primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, either through income maintenance or institutionalization for long term care. Nor is the 21st century version of the term “inadmissibility on public charge grounds” new with the Trump administration. Though rarely used, government statistics show that, in 2016, 164 visas were denied on the grounds that the applicant could become a “public charge.” What is noteworthy is the enormous increase in the use of the hardhearted term under Trump: in fiscal year 2018, 5,518 immigrants were denied visas “on public charge grounds.” 

Trump’s executive decision, intended as a “clarification” of current policy, denies green cards to those who have applied for any of various public assistance programs, from food stamps, housing vouchers, SSI and Medicaid to purchasing subsidized or unsubsidized healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. Needless to say, most of these programs offer far less than primary dependency on the government. Although there are already several court challenges to the decision, the suggestion that poor immigrants are taking undue advantage of federal benefit programs needs to be critiqued.

First, the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including DACA recipients, who contribute an estimated $11.74 billion to state and local economies each year, have never been eligible for the federal benefit programs mentioned in the executive order. Second, legal immigrants — those with lawful permanent resident (LPR) status — are barred from full access to public benefit programs until they have been here for five years and/or have worked here for 40 quarters. Even social security benefits, which all workers pay into, are not available to legal immigrants until they have completed 40 quarters of work, in addition to having maintained LPR status for five years.

The Trump administration claims that it is simply looking to ensure self-sufficiency from immigrants and to prevent them from becoming a drain on U.S. taxpayers. Yet, immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in government services and benefits, and legal immigrants use federal public benefit programs at lower rates than U.S.-born citizens. According to the Cato Institute, 32.5% of native-born citizen adults received SNAP benefits in 2012, compared to 25.4% of naturalized citizen adults and 29% of noncitizen adults. The Cato Institute also found that immigrants received lower benefit values, costing the program less than native-born citizens. 

While immigrants with serious medical conditions, along with their families, have until recently been allowed to remain in the United States while receiving life-saving medical treatment, without warning the Trump administration has also axed the “medical deferred action program.” Letters are being sent to thousands of immigrants here under this program, notifying them that they will have to leave within 33 days. The media have already reported stories of immigrant children for whom this may prove a death sentence. 

Those of us who want to live in a country that “cares for the stranger” are looking on in horror at the new rulings. More important, they must send a chill throughout our immigrant population, who see their choices being narrowed almost daily.  


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.

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