Earlier this year, the White House leaked word that it was mulling a new (and characteristically cruel) immigration rule that would allow the government to deny visa renewals, or green cards, to any immigrant who had participated in a means-tested social welfare program.
For more than a century, U.S. law has empowered the government to deny admission to immigrants whom they expect to be a burden on the state (a.k.a. a “public charge”). But the Executive branch has long held that this rule applied exclusively to those who would have a long-term need for cash benefits, or for institutional care. By contrast, the Trump administration’s nativist hardliners want the power to deny legal status to immigrants who enroll their (often U.S.-born) children in Head Start; accept baby-formula subsidies through the Woman, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; or apply for food stamps, housing benefits, Medicaid, health-insurance subsidies, or home-heating aid.
This reconception of what it means to be a “public charge” is difficult to defend in policy terms, or even logical ones. Most working-age Medicaid recipients have jobs. Tens of millions of working Americans participate in at least one means-tested social program. There is no basis for assuming that an immigrant who sends her child to a public preschool is receiving more from American society than she is contributing to it, in even the most crassly economistic calculus.
Further, programs like Head Start, WIC, and food stamps are (at least arguably) as much public investments as they are “welfare.” A large body of research has demonstrated that alleviating childhood hunger, and providing early opportunities for education, can increase a child’s prospects of growing up to be a healthy, employed, law-abiding adult — and thus, reduce our society’s long-term spending on health care, unemployment benefits, and incarceration. Denying the U.S.-born children of legal immigrants access to food stamps makes no more sense than discouraging them from entering libraries or walking on publicly funded sidewalks.
This incoherence might partially explain why the Trump administration still hasn’t officially unveiled its new rule, more than six months after its plans fist leaked. Nevertheless, the idea has already had a devastating impact on many immigrants in the United States, including some of America’s youngest citizens. As Politico reports:
Local health providers say they’ve received panicked phone calls from both documented and undocumented immigrant families demanding to be dropped from the rolls of WIC, a federal nutrition program aimed at pregnant women and children, after news reports that the White House is potentially planning to deny legal status to immigrants who’ve used public benefits. Agencies in at least 18 states say they’ve seen drops of up to 20 percent in enrollment, and they attribute the change largely to fears about the immigration policy.
… “It’s a stealth regulation,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration attorney at Dickinson Wright in El Paso, Texas. “It doesn’t really exist, but it’s being applied subliminally.”
Health advocates say the policy change could put more babies who are U.S.-born citizens at risk of low birth weight and other problems — undermining public health while also potentially fueling higher health care costs at taxpayer expense. WIC — formally the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — serves about half of all babies born in the U.S by providing vouchers or benefit cards so pregnant women and families with small children can buy staple foods and infant formula.
To review: The White House’s policy proposal (which it has repeatedly confirmed is under serious consideration) would put the lives of some of America’s most vulnerable citizens at risk, undermine public health, increase child hunger, and, potentially, increase the long-term deficit. In an interview with Politico, a DHS official defended the proposal, on the grounds that it would “ensure our immigration processes comport with [the] law.” But no court has ever found that the Executive branch’s failure to treat Medicaid recipients as “public charges” ran afoul of federal law.
Like so many of the Trump administration’s other immigration policies, the new “public charge” rule is difficult to comprehend unless one stipulates that this White House sees inflicting suffering on immigrants (legal or otherwise) as an end in itself.