New rules for immigrants play on myths

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, speaks to the news media during a briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on Aug. 12, 2019.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, speaks to the news media during a briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on Aug. 12, 2019. Photo Credit: Liam Quigley

President Donald Trump’s new regulations to bar immigrants who depend on government benefits from becoming legal permanent residents are about politics, not policy. It’s just the newest rendition of the old racist “welfare queen” scare. This time, the message has been retooled to fit the current immigration fracas and calibrated to make Democrats look like they support giving unlimited government benefits to calculating immigrants flocking to the United States simply to suckle at the government teat.

The benefit-motivated immigrant is a popular trope describing a rare phenomenon. Immigrants here illegally are not eligible for most government benefits and often go to great lengths to avoid the agencies that distribute them. Even immigrants here legally are mostly barred from receiving federal benefits until they have been in the country for five years. And immigrants receive benefits at significantly lower rates, and participate in the work force in higher percentages, than native-born people.

Regulations lack firm standards

The Department of Homeland Security, under a plan devised by White House adviser and anti-immigrant zealot Stephen Miller, has finalized new regulations that would keep immigrants from entering the country, renewing visas or obtaining permanent legal status if “they are likely at any time to become a public charge.” The rules would take effect Oct. 15. Immigrants who have received government benefits for 12 months out of the previous 36 could be penalized. However, the change also would let immigration officers penalize applicants who might need such benefits down the road, without setting any firm standards on how to support that determination.

New immigrants often take low-paying jobs, and it can take them time to build economic stability. This always has been true. The 4 million immigrants working in the United States with less than a high-school diploma earn an average of $27,820 a year. But that’s not because these people are lazy or unworthy. It’s because their American dream is in its infancy, because they are still sowing and not reaping.

And they do reap, in time. Immigrants ages 26 to 40 who’ve been here for four years earn nearly as much on average as those born here.

People come to work, not take

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, says the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty should now read, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.” That’s inflammatory. People come here to work, not take. American values should not be degraded so much that we accept that those who start out at the bottom will not contribute to our society.

But Cuccinelli really tipped the administration’s hand when he explained that the poem needs updating because it referred “to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class.”

People moving to the United States today, wherever they hail from and whatever the color of their skin, come for the same reason as the European wretches of the 19th century. They want to earn their piece of the American dream. We can’t let the president bar them based on the lie that they’re trying to steal it.

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