Immigration Is for Rich People

Immigration Is for Rich People

The Trump administration’s public charge rule treats noncitizens as a commodity—but their status was always for sale.


Starting in October, the Trump administration’s new definition of who constitutes a “public charge” will likely thwart thousands of low-income immigrants from obtaining legal permanent resident status in the United States. The rule, which in the past has only affected applicants who leaned heavily on cash aid to get by, will make it harder for recipients of Medicaid, housing vouchers, food stamps, or other basic subsidies to obtain green cards—even if they have no criminal records, pay their taxes, and reside in this country legally.

When immigrants are denied permanent residence and their prior legal status expires, they’re supposed to leave, often abandoning families, jobs, and communities. This new measure, then, effectively criminalizes poverty. Lawyers and advocates reported a drop in immigrants’ willingness to rely on life-saving state benefits even before the rule was made official, and they now worry that the policy will push more and more families into the shadows: They won’t get the help they need to feed their families, stay healthy, and feel safe.

The public charge rule has been criticized as unfair, undemocratic, and above all, un-American. It is all of those things—but it’s also unsurprising. Reporting on the intersection of money and migration for years before going through the US immigration process myself, I saw this coming. Borders have always existed much more for the poor than for the rich; what’s more, immigrants are now largely regarded not as people but as economic assets. Will they contribute to the economy? Are they a worthy investment? What is the cost-benefit breakdown?

This is what happens when society applies market logic to every aspect of life—and it’s the direction in which many countries had been moving, even before Trump, Brexit, and the revival of ethno-nationalist politics around the world.

For years, the United Kingdom has required immigrants, including those married to British citizens, to make a certain amount of money if they want to emigrate. That sum was recently raised to £36,000 ($43,639) from an already significant £30,000. Every EU country has salary requirements for certain categories of immigrants. To settle in Australia, you must prove you can support yourself until you find a job (if you are given a work permit at all). Virtually all the nations in the world require either employer or family sponsorship, and offer “investor” visas to foreigners who can make large financial contributions and support themselves in full. It’s not primarily about who you are, or even where you’re from—though that factors in significantly. It’s about how much you can pay.

Refugees and asylum seekers know all too well that the more cash you have to spend on lawyers, the better your chances are of resettlement. But professionals with fancy degrees get squeezed, too: Filing fees for basic immigration paperwork in the United States cost hundreds of dollars. (This is the money with which US Immigration and Citizenship Services is funded—US taxpayers subsidize keeping people out with walls and security, but not letting people in.) And good luck navigating the bureaucracy without a lawyer: I recently tallied up all the money I spent on immigration since graduating from college in 2008, and it came to $15,000. (That sum does not include college itself—which allowed me to be eligible for a visa in the first place.)

Oh, and about that “line” that Republicans want immigrants to get in? You can buy your way out of that, too. USCIS gives applicants the option of shelling out an additional $1,410 for what’s known as “premium processing,” which cuts the wait time for a status approval (or denial) from several months to 15 days.

It feels absurd to bring up the ultrarich in the context of Trump’s new rules, but even 1 percenters can’t escape the creeping trend of costlier and costlier immigration, particularly to the United States. The US EB-5 visa, which wealthy foreigners can obtain by investing in state-designated development projects, almost doubled its original minimum investment of $500,000. This means a whole class of already wealthy people (an overwhelming proportion of whom come from China) may no longer afford the cost.

Curiously, applying market logic to immigration has pushed other countries to cut costs. After a devastating hurricane season a couple of years ago, the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis–which has sold its citizenship legally to wealthy foreigners for decades—was so desperate for cash that it lowered the price of citizenship to just over $200,000 for a family of four, down from more than $300,000.

A hundred thousand dollars is the equivalent of pocket change to a billionaire. But at every income bracket, the difference between legal and illegal immigration often boils down to how much you can spend. That, of course, hurts those with the least the most.

How do these rules affect immigrants who are neither impoverished nor exceedingly rich? My own case might be instructive. I’m not the kind of person Trump is targeting—at least, not yet—but I recently came close to understanding what it feels like to be subject to his immigration restrictions, and in particular, experiencing the fear the administration’s cruel policies create.

It was early 2017, and I’d had a disruptive couple of years. I’d had to change apartments a bunch of times, and my employer, Al Jazeera America, abruptly shut down the year prior, leaving 800 of us to get by on a generous severance package, but with a finite and ultimately unaffordable health insurance policy.

Making a living as a freelance writer is never easy, and for a confluence of reasons related to an expiring COBRA health-insurance plan, a handful of story ideas that never panned out, and several publications’ taking an inordinate amount of time to pay me for the work I’d done, I found myself signing up for Obamacare on the New York State health exchange and reporting an income of close to zero over the period the questionnaire asked about.

I was also applying for a green card at the time, and I knew well enough to check whether receiving a health care subsidy would hurt my chances with immigration. The answer was a clear “no” at the time, so when the website gave me the option to go on Medicaid until my circumstances changed and the person at the other end of the toll-free line said it was my right, I took it. I didn’t want to pay the penalty for having no insurance. I was healthy. It was free. I signed up and forgot about it.

A few months later, a draft of the public charge rule was released. I clicked on some news headlines revealing the administration’s intentions, and those sent me down a rabbit hole of immigration forums (the experience is a bit like Googling a headache and finding out that you definitely are dying of cancer). I soon found myself dripping cold sweat and trying to tamp down a panic attack. I turned off my phone, convinced I would be promptly deported, and terminated my insurance plan as soon as I could.

I’d only needed to use the insurance once. I was at an offshore-tax conference in Miami to give a talk about how buying passports can help rich people dodge taxes, and the night before my lecture, the pinkie toe on my left foot swelled up to what felt like 10 times its size. In the early hours of the morning, the pain grew unbearable, so I called up the local hospital to ask if I could come in to get it checked out. They took all insurance, they said. Come on in.

I stood up, got dressed, and tried to squeeze into sandals, but they wouldn’t fit over my monstrous pinkie, so I made my way down the elevator and onto the parking lot in flimsy white hotel slippers. The conference had put me up in the Ritz Carlton, in a room bigger than my Brooklyn apartment, and the chain’s golden-lion logo on my feet caught the light from the hotel’s awning as I waited for a cab, clutching my Medicaid card, hoping my care would be covered. My foot hurt like hell, but I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

After a long wait at the hospital, a sunburned ER doctor sliced my toe open as I looked away: a nasty abscess, but nothing serious. And my green card arrived a year and a half later during the last government shutdown: my filing fees at work.

I was lucky; I still am. Still, my visit to the hospital and notably, the insurance I used to pay for it felt like a close call. What if I’d applied for permanent residence a year or two later, after they’d changed the rules? What if my financial situation had not improved? Where would I be if they’d thought of me as what we all, in some way and at some point, end up being: a public charge?

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