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Guest column by Laurie Millman: The fallacy of the rule of public charge

  • In this Aug. 12 file photo, Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House, in Washington. AP

Published: 9/2/2019 4:00:10 PM

The current administration has announced that its proposed changes to the rule of public charge will go into effect Oct. 15.

The “public charge” rule is a lens used to determine whether immigrants who are applying for admission to the U.S., or immigrants in the U.S. who are applying for legal permanent resident status, are likely to need public assistance long-term and therefore become the government’s responsibility. It is not a new rule.

What is new is the inclusion of such widely-used public benefit programs, such as Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also called food stamps) and some housing vouchers, which were previously not considered as part of a “public charge” determination.

The Trump administration’s new wider lens for the public charge determination also includes such criteria as education levels, proficiency in English, income levels and health — all of which were also previously excluded. In other words, the neediest among us, described by Emma Lazarus as “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” in her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” (inspired by the Statue of Liberty), could now easily be denied admission to the U.S. if an immigration officer believes they are not likely to be self-sufficient.

At Center for New Americans, we are already seeing the impact of this announcement. At intake, new students have begun to ask if the information we collect will be used to enroll them in MassHealth. They worry that if they accept any public benefits, they may risk not only their own but their relatives’ ability to apply for legal permanent resident status.

Historians, such as Hidetaka Hirota, in his book “Expelling the Poor,” point out that the Public Charge rule was first implemented in 1882 during an era when the U.S. saw an influx of poor Irish immigrants. They remind us that even as many presidents, including Presidents Johnson, Bush and Reagan, have pointed to America’s embrace of immigrants as its source of strength, there have long been cross-currents, especially in times of economic uncertainty, that have resulted in more restrictive policies.

Having welcomed and served immigrants over the course of 27 years, we believe that most immigrants are committed to becoming self-sufficient. They are hard-working, proud and fiercely independent. They work long hours, accept shifts that many Americans disdain, and often hold multiple jobs. While attending our certified nurse aide training, one of our students worked 70 hours per week for three different employers.

Another student rejoiced, upon completing the nurse aide course and obtaining a full-time job in health care, that she no longer needed public assistance. When she received her benefit letter, she shared that she intended to call and say, “Thank you very much but I don’t need this anymore!”

Economic data shows that the immigrant pathway to economic independence is not an anomaly. According to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, “The Pioneer Valley has always been a destination for foreign immigrants. … A frequent concern about the region’s high level of international immigration is that there are not adequate services for new arrivals who often enter the country with few resources.

However the Valley, with its history of immigration dating back to the industrial mills of the nineteenth century, has demonstrated the capacity to readily absorb new immigrants into the economy. For instance, in 2009 the difference between the poverty rate of the foreign born and the total population in the Pioneer Valley was only 0.7 percent.

Perhaps even more significant, once immigrants have been in the country for some time, (as indicated by naturalized citizenship), they have a poverty rate in the Pioneer Valley that is 2.4% below that of the population as a whole.” (Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, 2011)

“America’s Advantage: A Handbook on Immigration and Economic Growth,” a publication of the George W. Bush Institute, reinforces the premise that immigrants are hard workers who contribute positively to the economy:

■ Immigrants are more likely than U.S.-born residents to be employed (62.2% of immigrants over the age of 16 vs. 58.1% of U.S.-born residents in 2015

■ There are more immigrant workers for each dependent, than U.S.-born residents. In other words, four immigrants support each person under the age of 18, or over the age of 64 compared to 1.5 U.S.-born residents)

■ Immigrant workers represented 45% of labor market growth between 2006 and 2016.

We welcome a level-headed national discussion of comprehensive immigration reform. We are dismayed at policy proposals that create solutions to problems that do not exist, while causing unnecessary hardship.

Laurie Millman is executive director at the Center for New Americans.

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