The Trump Administration has just taken its most consequential step to date to limit avenues to legal migration and permanent resident status in the United States. In defending the Department of Homeland Security’s final rule on the public charge grounds of inadmissibility, the Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli evoked the ideals of “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” claiming that the rule ensures “that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America.”
In fact, it does just the opposite. In assessing its likely impact, the Center for Migration Studies examined how the proposed rule would affect “mixed status” families, defined as families with both undocumented persons and U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPRs). Using American Community Survey (Census) data, it found that 2.25 million undocumented persons (and 212,000 temporary residents) live with a U.S. citizen or LPR who can petition for a family-based visa for them. (An additional 5.32 million persons – most U.S. citizens and LPRs – live in these households.) In a high percentage of these cases, U.S. citizens or LPRs have already petitioned for their undocumented family members (the intending immigrant), who languish in family-based visa backlogs that now include 3.7 million persons.
Like past generations of immigrants, many intending immigrants possess “negative” factors identified by the rule – low income and low levels of education – that will be weighed against them in assessing their admissibility and, by extension, their ability to secure “immigrant” or permanent status in the United States. Yet CMS found that these persons are overwhelmingly employed and self-sufficient. Moreover, to deny them LPR status will at the very least impede their ability to succeed in the United States. It will also devastate their U.S. family members. Those found inadmissible under the new rule will be subject to deportation, rather than on a path to LPR status and citizenship. If deported, many will no longer be able to support their U.S. families at all. The rule will further hurt these families by serving as a disincentive to their U.S. citizen childrens’ use of public services and benefits for which they are eligible. As has been widely reported, this was occurring even before the rule became final. Hunger, homelessness, and public health crises will be the predictable result.
The rule also introduces a troubling level of subjectivity into public charge determinations. The prior standard focused on the sponsor’s income and assets: i.e., were they sufficient to support the intending immigrant? If so, it would be nigh-impossible for the intending immigrant to access federal means-tested benefits in the future. The new standard looks at five characteristics of the intending immigrant – age; health; family status; assets, resources, and financial status; and education and skills – any of which (if deemed negative) can lead to inadmissibility on public charge grounds. For example, if the intending immigrant cannot demonstrate a current income of at least 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, that would be a negative factor and would be difficult to overcome, as would lack of a high school diploma, proficiency in English, and a positive credit score.
CMS examined the impact of the new standard on undocumented persons, with U.S. citizen and LPR family members, who are residing in the United States. However, the rule creates even more problems for intending immigrants residing abroad in nations with lower wages and cost of living. How, for example, will they demonstrate a sufficient income measured against the U.S. federal poverty guidelines, which are substantially higher than those in their home countries?
In these circumstances, it is rank hypocrisy to claim that the rule – which targets working class persons – promotes self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. Instead, the rule should be seen in the context of the administration’s support for significant cuts in family-based immigration. As the CMS report concluded, “a large number and share of working class immigrants would be denied admission and prevented from adjusting to LPR status under the proposed rule. As such, the rule might best be seen as part of a broader strategy to reduce legal avenues for migration to the United States and to impede access to citizenship.” In fact, it may be the administration’s best opportunity – faced with a divided Congress – to slash legal immigration.
The administration’s intentions should also be assessed in light of its proposed rule of May 10, 2019, which would deny public housing to low-income families with even one undocumented family member. CMS estimates that this rule will bar 11.5 million people from housing assistance. The Trump Administration’s guiding principle has never been one of solicitude for immigrants or concern over their success. Instead, the rule is another example of its cruelty toward immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members.
We must look at this rule in the context of U.S. history. In 2015, a report by the National Academies of Sciences recounted the large numbers of European immigrants who entered the United States in the early part of the 20th century with low levels of education, high levels of illiteracy, and the Great Depression looming. Yet these immigrants and their children integrated and contributed substantially to U.S. society. If they can overcome federal immigration policies, today’s immigrants will do the same.