David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

The Trump administration is making its boldest move yet to cause a great deal of suffering for immigrants who are here legally, and at the same time to make it harder for aspiring Americans to enter the country through legal channels. Some experts say it could cut legal immigration in half by denying visas and permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of applicants just for being too poor.

What is this move? Simply that Trump’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is fundamentally rewriting more than half a century of US immigration policy by expanding the definition of “public charge.” The wording changes will give the administration broad authority – based on age, income and education – to block new immigrants and deny permanent residency to millions of people presently in the country legally. Everyone with some form of provisional or temporary immigration status who would be denied legal residency under the new rules could be at risk for deportation.

The changes, which are set to take effect in October, have one goal: implement Trump’s hateful, racist vision of a white ethno-state. They target and will overwhelmingly impact immigrants of color from South American, the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Asia.

This is yet another horrendous policy of cruelty for the sake of cruelty. And it will deprive the U.S. economy of badly needed new immigrants who have a long track record of upward mobility.

Congress must abolish the public charge rule, just as it refused take up Trump’s call earlier this year for a merit-based immigration reform. And local governments, not-for-profits, labor unions and all people of conscience must rise up in opposition.

Consider this: President Trump’s grandfather Friedrich, who immigrated to America at the age of 16 with little education, money or the ability to speak English, would almost certainly have been rejected under the new standards.

A person considered a potential “public charge” is someone who the United States deems likely to be primarily dependent on the federal government for subsistence. The new 837-page DHS document renders as ineligible for a green card and potentially deportable an expanded number of noncitizen applicants who live in public housing or enroll family members in the food stamp program.

Under the revised rule, officials are to consider applicants’ use of certain public benefits previously excluded from the public charge calculation, including non-emergency Medicaid for non-pregnant adults, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a/k/a/ food stamps, known as SNAP), and several housing programs, and count them in the “public charge” calculation. Having been simply approved for these noncash benefits, even if the applicant has not actually received them, counts as a strike against receiving a green card under the new rubric.

The DHS rules also include utterly preposterous new criteria to assess whether an applicant is “likely” to someday become a public charge. For instance, the absence of private health insurance, not having a college degree, and a lack of English-language skills “sufficient to enter the job market” – all are grounds to deny a path to permanent residency. So is having a low credit score. This is a real mistake: credit scores were never designed for immigration purposes, are chock full of errors, and have been shown to discriminate against African American and Latino communities, whose lower scores are most likely due to historical discrimination markers that are baked into the proprietary calculation.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that under the new rule 27 percent of recent successful green-card applicants from Europe, Canada and Oceania had two or more negative factors, compared with 60 percent of people from Mexico and Central America, and 41 percent of Asians.

Tragically, fear of the new DHS rules has caused immigrant families to forego medical care and food assistance they are entitled to out of fear it would jeopardize their ability to become citizens or remain in the United States. This perception hurts children. Nationwide, over 13.5 million Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program enrollees, including 7.6 million children, live in a household with at least one noncitizen or are noncitizens themselves. And no one should disenroll from a health insurance program without talking to an expert first. This new rule does not apply to naturalized citizens or individuals who already have a green card.

Just like the policy of separating children from their parents at the border and holding children in cages, Trump’s public charge revisions send a clear message to immigrants: We intend to make life in the United States cruel and unbearable for you. Truth be told, the president’s vile politics of racism, nativism, white supremacy and xenophobia has already made the country unbearable for a lot of us.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.