Sabrina Hersi Issa Trump's public charge plan punishes legal immigrants for America's existing income inequality

The administration explicitly disavowed the language chiseled on the Statue of Liberty to defend their new immigration strategy.
Image: Citizenship And Immigration Acting Director Ken Cuccinell Holds Press Briefing
Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks about immigration policy at the White House during a briefing Aug. 12, 2019.Win McNamee / Getty Images
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By Sabrina Hersi Issa, human rights technologist

It is the ultimate form of kleptocracy when the stewards of our government not only seek to rob those of us whose ancestors arrived more recently of our right to belong, but also actively steals the dreams from millions to ever become an American simply for being poor.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, continued that robbery job on Tuesday as he deliberately slaughtered a poem attached to the Statue of Liberty in an interview while defending the administration's new rule, announced Monday, to deny permanent legal status to low-income legal residents who receive public benefits, such as food stamps or public housing — called public charge.

Changing the words of Emma Lazarus' stirring poem that has greeted generations of immigrants in New York Harbor from "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” to "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he revealed the truth of the administration's intentions to cut off access to the American dream for the modern embodiment of Lazarus' masses, regardless of their rhetoric about "legality."

But manipulating federal immigration policy to use the perception of future poverty as a measure of one's worthiness to be in America is dangerous for everyone in America. It turns programs designed to protect people into weapons of surveillance, economic shame, pain and suffering.

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The regulation, set to take effect in October, is aimed at hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter the country legally every year and then apply to become permanent residents. Immigration officials will be able to apply the rule to separate families, deny legal resident status and sever pathways for citizenship on the basis of needing anything critically necessary for survival, such as health care or food aid, even on an emergency basis.

This policy is dangerous threat for everyone — and will come to shape the future of political and economic power in the United States. Cuccinelli — who would rewrite the welcome on the Statue of Liberty herself — defended the targeting of low-income legal residents by stating that it would supposedly ensure that immigrants would not be a “drain on society.” But that lie assumes there is something wrong or shameful about temporarily needing help to survive in America, or that such temporary assistance is never repaid in full or more.

We are all striving to survive in an America where income inequality is at an all-time high and more than one in eight Americans live in poverty. Officials estimate that nearly 20 million children in immigrant families will be affected by the changes, and almost nine in 10 of those children are United States citizens — in other words, parents will have to choose between feeding their citizen children or risking their own futures in this country. This racist policy will have immediate, dire humanitarian effects, leaving the more than 4 million nonresident families who received food aid benefits in recent years with no place to turn, out of fear of reprisal from immigration officials.

The Trump administration is systematically and methodically weaponizing survival systems to terrorize people that America is supposed to protect. Food security is a favorite weapon of this administration, which has already issued a new eligibility determination system for citizens that stands to leave more than 3.1 million people without food assistance if it takes effect.

These changes will have long-term consequences on who can power our economy and democratic life; by stripping away basic support, federal policy is now determining who is worthy of thriving at all. The economic misery Trump exploited during his campaign is real and, instead of fighting a war on poverty, his administration has taken up arms in a racist war on the poor.

But to believe this move is about economic security for some is to buy into a larger lie. This is an explicit play to exploit our country’s immigration system to secure political power. The policy was championed by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who has explicitly championed hard-line assimilationist immigration policies and become personally involved in individual immigration decisions. And it was stewarded through the bureaucracy by Cuccinelli who, during his time in the Virginia Legislature, supported changes to the state Constitution to restrict birthright citizenship and sought to deny unemployment benefits to workers who do not speak English.

And we should brace for worse to come: While this policy purportedly exempts refugees and asylum-seekers, Miller is pushing for zero refugee admissions in 2020 anyway and, just last year, Cuccinelli argued in favor of turning away people fleeing violence from Central America. "You don't have to keep 'em. No catch and release, no nothing. You just point 'em back across the river, and let 'em swim for it,” he bragged.

We should all be in fear of policies that embed white supremacist ideologies into the federal immigration system and are celebrated as victories by both mainstream Republicans and white nationalists alike.

Ultimately these moves are a testament to the lengths that hardliners like Stephen Miller will go to control the impacts of changing demographics and the increasingly diverse, rising electorate power in America. It is Miller, the architect of the "Muslim Ban," the stalemate on "Dreamers" and the family separation policy, who has repeatedly argued that Republicans have been too compromising on immigration. It is Miller who systematically purged and forced the resignations of high-level Homeland Security officials he deemed too soft on immigration.

Forcing legal immigrants to forgo food stamps is not a win for anyone except him and this band of American kleptocrats who are committed to stoking pain and suffering for all, while simultaneously spreading the lie that immigrants are the cause of the misfortunes of "real Americans." In the absence of keeping America white, they are — through hate and fear powered by policy and executive orders — desperately trying to keep American power white.

This is a moral loss and a dangerous threat for everyone. We must confront the fact that this fight strikes at the core of America’s moral center. We are all worthy to exist in the United States. We are all worthy of being Americans.