Opinion: Public charge and the future of immigration

Steve Tobocman

The future of immigration in America is very much at stake right now. Yet, it’s not the threat of the so-called “caravan,” nor attempts to gut asylum law. It has nothing to do with the “Muslim ban” or building a southern border wall. And it’s not President Trump’s historic cuts to refugee resettlement.

While all of those issues are critically important—redefining our national character and changing America’s legacy as the world’s most welcoming nation with a history of providing refuge to the persecuted—the future of U.S. immigration policy is very much at stake due to an issue you probably have never heard about: a federal rule proposed by President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security to take an obscure, rarely-used piece of immigration law known as the “public charge” and expand it to monstrous proportions

The Trump Administration’s proposed expansion of the definition would explicitly authorize immigration officials to withhold green cards from legal applicants who utilize any number of government aid programs to which they (or their U.S.-citizen children) are legally entitled—including food assistance, health care, and housing vouchers or who are simply working-class.

The proposed regulation even allows officials to reject visa applications from new immigrants wishing to pursue the American Dream because they believe an immigrant might conceivably utilize one of those government supports someday in the future.

According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, this proposed rule will impact as many as 24 million people in the U.S., including more than 8 million U.S.-citizen children born to immigrant parents. The impacts will include close to a million legal residents applying for green cards every year, as well as hundreds of thousands of new visa applicants who, often after waiting more than 10 years for the opportunity to come to America, may now find the doors closed to their chance to live the American Dream.

Many observers believe the proposed rule is an end run around Congress in an attempt to vastly reduce legal immigration. The Trump Administration has indicated its support for proposed legislation to halve the number of legal immigrants allowed into the U.S.—a reduction of approximately one half million new entrants per year.

Facts debunk the myth that U.S. social service programs are overburdened by immigrants or that immigrants only come to the U.S. to live off the generous social safety net. Most social service programs are off limits to immigrants until they have resided legally in the U.S. for five years. In Michigan, according to the Migration Policy Institute immigrants comprise 7 percent of the recipients of welfare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) between 2014-2016—an amount roughly equal to their share of Michigan’s population.

While the proposed “public charge” rule raises Faustian choices between accessing food stamps or health care for one’s U.S. citizen children and one’s future residency status, the proposal would have disastrous economic consequences for the American economy.

These are very real issues here in Michigan. In the 2010 Census, Michigan was the only state in America to have lost population, after our own version of a “Lost Decade.” And while our population has grown by 45,000 new residents between 2010-2015, all of the state’s population growth has been due to immigration (with over 64,000 new arrivals during that time). Similar trends are evident in Detroit and Metro Detroit, which have been losing population, but our losses are offset by strong immigration growth.

A man holds his hands in the air in front of a line of Border Patrol agents during a protest Monday, Dec. 10, 2018, in San Diego. U.S. officials arrested 32 people at a demonstration Monday that was organized by a Quaker group on the border with Mexico, authorities said. Demonstrators were calling for an end to detaining and deporting immigrants and showing support for migrants in a caravan of Central American asylum seekers.

Immigrants targeted by the new regulation are critical components to Michigan’s aging workforce needs.

This “public charge” proposal, being foisted through federal rulemaking—rather than congressional action—will keep out, kick out, and punish hard-working legal immigrants. And it will devastate economies, like Michigan’s, that they help fuel.

Drastically expanding the “public charge” not only is harsh to immigrants, it’s a recipe for sluggish growth, particularly to the Michigans of the world.

Steve Tobocman is executive director of Global Detroit.