President Donald Trump’s administration this week announced a set of new rules aimed at significantly curtailing the number of people being granted legal residency in the U.S. According to The Associated Press, the rules include “denying green cards to many migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.”
The rule has been marinating for nearly a year and would affect millions of people, including the children of immigrants. Only those who can demonstrate that they have enough money to satisfy the government may immigrate. In other words, Trump’s vision of legal immigration to the U.S. privileges those who already are privileged.
The new rule is part of a long-standing right-wing gripe about immigrants, both legal and undocumented, using government assistance. Fox News hosts like Jeanine Pirro and Tucker Carlson, who appear to be de facto White House advisers, have long made claims of immigrants being a burden on society. Never mind the fact that, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, “individual immigrants use public benefits at lower rates and at lower portions than native-born Americans.” All that matters is furthering the perception that immigrants are a drain on America. The White House under Trump has also worked hard to make that case.
As if to obscure the appalling optics of a policy that explicitly applies a wealth test to those wanting to immigrate to America, Trump’s Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, went as far as rewriting Emma Lazarus’ famous poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, host Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli if Lazarus’ poem, which begins, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” “are also part of the American ethos.” He replied in the affirmative but then rewrote the poem, saying, “Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Nowhere in Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” is the sentiment Cuccinelli proposes. Quite literally, he and Trump are embodying an un-American ethos in requiring that only those who are independently wealthy qualify for legal residency.
In addition to a class-based attack, the new rule is also unsurprisingly racist, given that nonwhite green card applicants are far likelier to hail from poorer nations compared with white European, Canadian or Australian applicants. Cuccinelli said as much a day later in another interview on CNN, when he explicitly attributed Lazarus’ poem as applying only to “people coming from Europe.”
Democratic Congresswoman Norma Torres of California hit the nail on the head when she explained in a recent interview that the new rule is “just an excuse to rid the country of people who look like me.” She added, “Only someone who has grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, who has filed [for] bankruptcy so many times and has never had to suffer a consequence of being homeless, of being without a paycheck, without a job because of an illness, only someone like that can put forward a policy like this and think that it’s OK.” Guatemalan-born Torres is the only member of Congress of Central American origin.
But the Trump administration imagines itself innocent against charges of racism. Cuccinelli explained to reporters on Monday that the rule was simply intended to foster “self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to or stay in the United States.”
This is a standard Republican talking point used to slash public funding for services ordinary people rely on and deflect attention from the far larger subsidies, tax breaks and other government largesse aimed at corporations.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently explained how tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry cost the public nearly $40 billion over ten years. Reich also pointed out how a company like Boeing is gifted billions of dollars as incentives to create jobs—but has instead laid off thousands.
The Republican tax reform law of 2017 enriched already-rich corporations with massive tax breaks; many of them then turned around and used the extra cash to buy back their stocks rather than create jobs and open new plants. Republicans never criticize the public subsidy of corporate America or demand it learn self-reliance. Instead, they enable corporate dependence on the Federal Treasury. Self-reliance is only for poor immigrants, not businesses and their rich executives.
Nowhere in Trump’s new immigration rules is an acknowledgement of how many corporate employers rely on their workers receiving public assistance to make ends meet. Walmart is notorious for paying its workers so little that it costs the nation billions of tax dollars in public assistance for Walmart workers. The same is now true for the online retail giant Amazon.
Immigrants who have been forced to use public assistance because of the horribly low wages their employers pay will now be ineligible for legal residency in the U.S. as per Trump’s new rules.
Just a week ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) swept up nearly 700 agricultural workers at plants across Mississippi. As per right-wing logic, the undocumented workers at Koch Foods in Mississippi deserved to be rounded up, detained, and separated from their children. If any of those workers—who put up with years of labor abuses—had been eligible for legal residency but used public assistance to make up for poor wages, they would now be denied green cards under Trump’s new rules.
But neither Koch Foods nor any of the corporations have so far faced legal consequences for employing undocumented workers, even though it was determined that they “willfully and unlawfully” chose to employ undocumented workers (perhaps assuming those workers would be easier to exploit).
Instead, the company held a job fair days after the raids to replace the workers that ICE removed. When asked about separating parents from children, acting ICE Director Mark Albence blamed immigrant parents for the plight of their children, saying, “The parents or the individuals that are breaking the law are ultimately the ones that are responsible for placing their children in this situation.” He had no words of blame for the corporations that broke employment law.
There has also been no Republican criticism of government subsidies for farmers and agribusinesses. For decades, farmers have been given billions of dollars in public assistance, almost all of it going to white farmers. Over the past year, as a result of Trump’s trade war with China, the government has approved a massive taxpayer funded bailout to farmers, which a report pointed out is further enriching already-rich farmers and has gone to almost exclusively white male farmers. Where is the talk of self-reliance and not being a public charge?
In fact, this nation was built on welfare—for white Americans. As Chauncey Devega points out in Salon, “During the 18th and 19th centuries, free land was given to European settlers.” He describes the institution of slavery and the unpaid labor of enslaved Africans as a “de facto intergenerational welfare payment to White America.” Since then, countless other government opportunities and benefits have poured into the hands of white Americans.
One such American has been Trump himself, who, according to a New York Times investigation, “helped his father take improper tax deductions worth millions.” The money his family reaped as a result was passed down to Trump himself, who has used government-backed loans and subsidies to build his wealth. America’s largely white, wealthy elite classes have all consistently depended on government assistance but never faced the type of vilification that poor people, people of color and immigrants face.
Ayn Rand, who enshrined selfishness as a virtue and who decried the idea of accepting handouts from anyone, especially the government, was also an immigrant. But the Russian-born author, philosopher and Republican icon is Trump’s favorite type of immigrant—a white one. Therefore, her hypocrisy in relying on government programs such as Social Security is overlooked.
Setting aside the humanitarian concerns around embracing poor immigrants, as Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty encourages, the benefits of immigrants far outweigh the costs to the U.S. economy. Study after study finds that immigrants contribute more than they use. Even the George W. Bush Institute—hardly a left-wing outfit—has concluded the same. Immigrants pay hundreds of billions of dollars in federal, state and local taxes each year—taxes that all residents benefit from.
But in Trump’s America, poor immigrants of color are a strain on America. They are “invaders” who suck up the resources deserved by hard-working white Americans. They must be kept out of the country at all costs and have maximum pain inflicted upon them.
In Trump’s version of America, the Statue of Liberty might say, “only white wealthy immigrants are welcome here.”