America may figure itself a land of rugged individualism, but it’s always maintained a pittance of charity for the poorest of the poor—from the alms house of yore, to food stamps and unemployment pay today. But if you were born in another country, the only thing abject poverty qualifies you for might soon be a one-way ticket back to your home country.
The Trump administration has proposed a dramatic expansion of the so-called “public charge” rule, which could allow governments to punish migrants who are deemed to place a burden on the government. Immigration officials use the term “public charge” to describe people they believe are “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through public benefits or institutionalization. Trump’s new rules would dramatically expand who would be deemed a public charge, increasing the number of immigrants who will be denied admission or granted legal residency in the United States. In layman’s terms, being classified as a public charge means: We don’t want you here because you cost too much.
In New York, the crackdown on immigrant benefits would harm an estimated 400,000 to 700,000 people, according to new study focusing on the social impact of the public-charge proposal. The impact would play out largely through the “chilling effect” of being discouraged or deterred from accessing benefits. Surveys by the Columbia Population Research Center and Robin Hood Foundation found that among the immigrants polled, “15 percent of non-citizens have avoided public programs, and 30 percent of non-citizens have avoided a wide range of daily activities because they do not want to be asked about their immigration status.” Nearly one-fifth of immigrants surveyed reported avoiding interacting with public institutions, or avoiding economic engagement out of fear of being challenged about their immigration status. Advocates believe that Trump’s toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric has created an atmosphere of anxiety and tension, which would drive immigrants, with and without papers, to avoid social programs. Why apply for food stamps, when you’d rather forgo meals than jeopardize your immigration status?
An estimated 65,000 to 115,000 would fall into poverty simply due to these deterrent effect of the public-charge rule in NYC. This includes as many as 45,000 children, resulting in a net 5 percent increase in poverty in New York City. In terms of the direct effect of enforcement, a separate assessment by the city government suggests that potentially “400,000 low- and middle-income immigrant New Yorkers could be deemed inadmissible, or ineligible to adjust their immigration status.” That could directly harm “an estimated 72,000 US citizen children and 29,000 individuals with disabilities.” The analysis indicates that a city already strained by epidemic homelessness and hunger would face about $420 million in total economic losses to the city, in part through the gutting of critical benefits programs like disability aid and food stamps.
Social-service groups are reportedly already feeling the impacts of the policy in their day-to-day interactions with immigrant communities. Co-author Veyom Bahl says via e-mail, “our experience working with nonprofits serving New Yorkers indicates that the chilling effect has already started to set in; families are preemptively unenrolling from these programs even before the policy has been implemented.”
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “If the new standard regarding benefit receipt were applied to U.S.-born citizens, nearly one-third would have trouble meeting it, based on conservative assumptions.” The rule could impact an immigrant who earned less than 125 percent above the poverty line or $31,375 (without benefits) for a household of four. That’s an income level roughly one in six citizens would fail to meet. Immigrants often face even greater hardship because—while Trump accuses them of sponging off benefits—the law actually already discriminates against immigrants, since most green-card holders are forced to wait several years before they can obtain Medicaid and other assistance.
Aside from those who would be punished for receiving benefits, the proposed rule threatens many more immigrants and their families because it is also based on a speculative measure. It would consider not only current recipients but people who the administration (already known for its discriminatory treatment of immigration applications) believes are likely to one day receive them.
Another related aggravating factor, according to Bahl is the potential local impact of the Trump administration’s parallel proposal to ask about people’s citizenship status on the upcoming Census survey. Since this could deter Census response rates from immigrants across the city, Bahl argues, “knock-on effects would include decreased federal funding for a wide range of programs and services, which would both impoverish families and decrease consumption spending.” With the addition of the public-charge rule, he adds, “Immigrants in New York (and elsewhere) face not just the direct consequences of this specific rule, but also trying to live their lives and provide for their families in a broader economic and political climate. [The analysis shows the] potential consequences of this climate for vulnerable New Yorkers.”
For struggling immigrant families, according to Danilo Trisi of the CBPP, children, many of them future citizen taxpayers, could face an even longer-term burden from the chilling effect of the rule: “the kinds of assistance that the rule covers have positive effects on children, improving their health and helping them do better (and go farther) in school, thereby boosting their expected earnings as adults.” The total consequences of the law represent a measure of the power of fear itself on communities living under Trump’s immigration war, meted out in the shrinking of social space for immigrants and the slow curdling of a pluralist democracy.
It’s fitting that the public-charge policy can be traced back to a time of eugenicist restrictionism—the days when “sick”-looking immigrants were marked with chalk as they marched past border inspectors at Ellis Island. But the standards set forth in the rules are massively out of step with the basic economics of immigration in a globalized world. Any calculation of the “public cost” of immigrants must consider the net contribution of their labor and economic activity. According to the American Immigration Council, in fiscal year 2014 alone, immigrant-led households paid an estimated $223.6 billion in federal taxes, on top of $104.6 billion in state and local taxes.
When the Trumpists rail about how much immigrants cost the United States, they’re often referring to the cost of immigration enforcement—which is, yes, immense (about $18.7 billion in the latest budget). But that’s primarily because the US citizens in charge of administering the immigration system have insisted on making it as wasteful, oppressive, and unlawfully brutal as possible. Failed policies should be blamed on failed policy-makers, not the workers and families who struggle to overcome unjust rules.
In other words, immigrants do not create an unnecessary economic burden on the state, but the state’s regressive, racist immigration regime definitely does, and the entire public, immigrants and non-immigrants alike, are paying the price.