No sooner had the Trump administration announced its intention to impose a new rule that will deny public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid to some legal immigrants, then 13 lawsuit trigger-happy states filed action against the Department of Homeland Security. Immigrants who are likely to rely on welfare benefits for their survival are generally referred to as public charges.
In their complaints, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington agreed in principle that the new rule would reverse a decades-old policy of granting affirmative benefits to immigrants, would violate the Immigration and Nationality Act, and is “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James, who said her office also would sue, struck an emotional note when she said that eliminating benefits to new permanent residents is “un-American, anti-immigrant, and unlawful…”
But contrary to critics’ high-pitched objections, according to Section 212(a)(4) of the INA, any individual seeking admission to the United States, or applying for a Green Card, is ineligible if s/he is likely to become a “public charge.” But, the guidelines have been ignored for decades and throughout Republican and Democratic administrations. Public charge first appeared on the scene in 1645, when Massachusetts was still a British colony, and European governments paid for their poorest residents to migrate to America. The legislation reflected colonists’ belief that residents were obligated to care for themselves.
Federal immigration laws have reinforced the goal of assuring that new immigrants are self-sufficient. In 1996 President Bill Clinton signed two bills, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that required immigrant petitioners to sign a legally binding support affidavit acknowledging their financial responsibility. The laws also clearly stated that new immigrants would be, for a period of five years after their admission, ineligible for means-tested federal benefits. These standards which immigrants agree to are often ignored, hence the renewed DHS push.
Although mainstream media readers would never know it from the brouhaha, public charge restrictions are a positive for the U.S. With literally millions of foreign nationals eager to migrate to America, public charge policy ensures that those who become permanent residents will contribute. Public charge should not be perceived as anti-immigrant, but rather a commonsense plan that help immigrants thrive in American society. High welfare use creates dependency, a condition that’s often difficult to emerge from. Remember, the Census Bureau predicts that, assuming the immigration status quo remains unchanged, tens of millions more immigrants will arrive by 2060. With their children, immigrants will be the leading population driver. That most immigrants, young and adult, can contribute is important.
New York Times journalist Bret Stephens supports public charge, at least in his broad vision of it. In his July 2018 column, “Democratic Socialist is Dem Doom” Stephens wrote that social democracy falls apart on the contradiction between “nearly unlimited government largess and nearly unlimited immigration.” Several years ago, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman reached the same, still-true-today, conclusion as Stephens: “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”
Immigration must work for immigrants and Americans. The public charge rule helps both reach that important and worthy objective.