On the one hand, we have a President who is married to a naturalized citizen of the United States. To my understanding, Melania Trump was originally an O-1 nonimmigrant in the United States (a temporary visa status reserved for, in her case, a fashion model of extraordinary ability in business) who later used a comparable immigrant category to obtain lawful permanent residence. She then, eventually, applied for naturalization and became a citizen of the United States.
Fast forward, in what can only be described as a case of chain migration (something the President has professed to being opposed to), the President’s wife then petitioned for her own parents to come to the United States as immigrants, as she has the legal right to do under the law. Fast forward one more time, Mrs. Trump’s parents do come to the United States and, after a period of time, they apply for naturalization themselves, something they also have the right to do under the law. These naturalization applications, according to recent news reports, were granted. I work with clients every single day under similar fact patterns.
Juxtapose this with the fact that the President, himself individually and through his minion, Stephen Miller, is actively pursuing a policy to make it harder to become a lawful permanent resident (i.e., a Green Card holder), or for some lawful permanent residents to obtain citizenship. This is on top of all the other ridiculousness we’ve witnessed thus far over the summer, including the forced (and in many instances continued) family separations, actively opposing the continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”), among other acts of stupidity and egregiousness.
How is this so? How can a man who’s own wife (indeed even his own ex-wife too) and who’s own in-laws are immigrants to this country be so callous and cold-hearted to literally an entire class of human beings (i.e., anyone who was not born in the United States but yet wants to permanently reside in the United States)? Can someone explain this to me? Is the President’s family better than all the other aliens who want to become permanent residents of the United States? Or do they simply have more means?
And what about Mr. Miller? It seems that his family too were immigrants to the United States, arriving through Ellis Island from what is now Belarus. It seems that Mr. Miller’s relatives fled anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army at the beginning of the 20th century. According to news reports, the first decedent of Mr. Miller arrived in the United States knowing no English and with $8.00 in his pocket. He peddled street corners and worked in sweatshops. And by all news accounts, he worked hard and become very successful. That’s a great story.
With that as backdrop, the President, through Mr. Miller, is now pushing to enact a policy that could penalize legal immigrants whose families receive a wide array of public benefits and make it more difficult for them to obtain citizenship. At its core, the President’s proposal would penalize lawful permanent residents if they or their family members (including their U.S. citizen family members) have ever used government benefits (e.g., health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, some forms of Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit). If I was a permanent resident, because one of my sons receives services from the county, I could actually be impacted under this law.
Up until 1996, lawful permanent residents were eligible to receive public benefits on the same terms as U.S. citizens. In 1996, however, Congress passed a welfare reform law that barred permanent residents who resided in the United States for less than five years from participating in any means-tested public benefit programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program, and food stamps). The 1996 law labeled newly arriving immigrants who might not be able to provide for themselves as “public charges,” making them inadmissible unless they could demonstrate that they were not subject to that provision of the law.
The law still allows for the removal of lawful permanent residents who, within five years of their arrival to the United States, become public charges. That said, administrations prior to the current one have limited the public charge definition in this context to immigrants who use cash welfare programs or long-term institutional care funded by the government. Consequently, very few people have been removed from the United States. All this could change, however, if Mr. Miller gets his way. How so?
The law would redefine the terms “public charge” and “means-tested public benefits” to include a much wider variety of federal programs. Second, the government could remove legal permanent residents for using benefits. Under the President’s proposed policy, lawful permanent residents could be removed for using a wide variety of public benefits, potentially including food and nutrition assistance, federally subsidized health insurance through Medicaid or the Affordable Care Act, and even education benefits. Third, although the law currently allows immigration officials to refuse to admit prospective immigrants to the United States who could become public charges, the new policy, as currently written, could be interpreted to make a high-school degree or better a prerequisite for admission to the United States, or for someone to have a certain amount of assets. (This would obviously not impact the President’s in-laws, but could severely impact low-income or less well-educated immigrants from coming to be with their families). And finally, although also on the books now, the new policy would instruct federal agencies to request reimbursement for benefits used by legal immigrants. (This rarely happens now.)
So, where does that leave us? The haves and have nots? It sure sounds like it. It sure sounds like the President and Mr. Miller are attempting to portray legal immigrants as a drain on our system, somehow taking advantage of people like you and me. This is simply not the case. According to the CATO Institute, “[o]verall, immigrants are less likely to consume welfare benefits and, when they do, they generally consume a lower dollar value of benefits than native-born Americans.”
Mr. Miller’s family is an example of how immigrants can come to the United States, work hard, and become successful. But not everyone’s experience in America will be perfect, and sometimes individuals need to lean on our government for some help. No one should be forced to make a decision between ensuring their legal status in the United States is preserved against making sure their family is healthy and can eat. No one should ever have to make that decision.