The Trump administration continues to play dice with access to food, health care and housing. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has unveiled a regulation designed to permit overt class discrimination in the immigration process. Expected to take effect Oct. 15, a new criterion for “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” appears to skew the process for seeking legal permanent status in the U.S. in favor of high-income immigrants.
Immigrants benefiting from public assistance will be denied green cards if their cases transpire after implementation of the rule. The rule structurally dramatizes how the U.S. penalizes poverty and stigmatizes immigrant communities as categorically other than “us.”
The existing definition of public charge, according to the 1996 regulations, was a person primarily dependent on government assistance programs — such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income or long-term Medicaid cases — for more than half their income. The new rule expands the definition to include potentially hardworking Americans who legally use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid and housing choice vouchers.
Although current green card holders, some military personnel, expectant mothers and their children would be exempt from the rule, such practices cultivate a culture of fear for immigrants and reinforce public rhetoric that targets nonwhite immigrants. People may unenroll from programs that they need out of fear of retribution and caution not to self-disqualify from the green card approval process. The new rule could force immigrant families to choose between having a green card and securing food, remaining healthy or obtaining housing stability.
As another tactic of cherry-picking U.S. citizens along the line of race and class, the new rule also raises questions about deservedness and belonging. We are again experiencing the litmus test of “Americanness” rooted in whiteness and capitalism. This reduces human beings to their economic worth and capacity to serve white interests. Whiteness refers to more than simply skin color or ancestry; white supremacy is a logic that governs lives and thinking and aims to silence and work against the legitimacy of nonwhites.
The Trump administration’s antagonistic approach to certain classes of immigrants and our collective muteness aid and abet this political abandonment of people farthest down in society’s ranks. Democracy is not safe — no one is — as long as the ruling class can use the power of the law to disinherit entire classes of people. We willfully delay national progress when we fail to center the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our society beyond the rubrics of belonging established to protect the interests of the ruling class.
In response to the rule change, USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli doctored the welcoming poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty thusly: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” His hurtful words and, worse, the administration’s policies effectively uncrown Lady Liberty, extinguish her guiding torch and shatter her liberative tablet.
USCIS appears to be less interested in saving taxpayer dollars and more committed to saving white power and presence in a browning nation. The politics of “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility” mask the administration’s efforts to reforge the myth of the U.S. as a republic safe only for white and wealthy Americans.
Only an act of willful ignorance reads the public charge rule change in a vacuum of “fixing the system.” If one follows the trail, one rightly situates this policy change alongside the construction of a southern border wall, aggressive policing and mass detention of undocumented people, drastic cuts to refugee admissions, and the manufactured crisis in our asylum system that resurrects the nation’s history of separating nonwhite families. This rule functions in the administration’s conspicuous agenda to curate what it means to be American consistent with a bygone era of white protectionism.
Functioning as a wealth test, the new regulation eviscerates economic opportunities for low-wealth immigrants, deeming them ineligible for obtaining a green card, and privileges persons less likely to benefit from safety net programs. Safety net programs augment income security for low-wealth communities, and barriers to these public goods — whether administrative or perceived — perpetuate a grossly unlevel playing field for nonwhites.
The weaponization of basic social goods for migrants who may become citizens threatens to cripple our nation’s economic prosperity and quality of life for many families. The American social contract depends on a federal guarantee of access to quality, affordable housing, nutritious food and affordable health care. If America is to be America, these non-negotiable economic and social goods are human rights unaltered by one’s citizenship status and class identity.
The American people deserve an economy that does not exclude and, instead, produces collective sustainability, racial equity and mutual accountability. Only an engaged electorate and outspoken, progressive public can help us deviate from the call to make America smaller and more homogenous.
Willie D. Francois is senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., the president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality, and a communications fellow at Community Change. Follow him on Twitter @WillieFrancois3.
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