Trump ban on benefits to immigrants resurrects old discrimination
Trump's immigration rule will turn the clock back to the 1920's. | Evan Vucci/AP

WASHINGTON—Back in the early 1900s, even before the U.S. slammed the door on immigrants from non-white Anglo-Saxon countries on Jan. 1, 1924, if an immigrant didn’t have at least $25, he or she and their family were declared “public charges,” detained at Ellis Island – and shipped back to countries they came from.

In Texas and other southern states until the 1960’s, almost anyone caught without $5 in his or her pocket could be declared a vagrant and put to work on a chain gang.

In so many words, that’s what anti-immigrant GOP President Donald Trump plans to do again.

Over the protests of unions, immigrant rights groups and other progressive organizations, the Trump government proposed rules in late September that said if an immigrant or his/her family used certain public subsidies, such as housing vouchers, Medicaid, and Temporary Assistance For Needy Families, their right to stay in the U.S. could be yanked and they could be thrown out of the country.

Indeed, the Trump proposal went even farther than that, CNN reported: The government could decide migrant applicants are likely to use public benefits “at any time in the future,” and prevent them from entering the U.S. And if a migrant accepted more than $1,800 yearly in all forms of aid – including aid for the migrant’s U.S.-born kids – the migrant could be tossed, too.

In its proposed rule, Trump’s Department of Homeland Security said if you’re getting that much aid, you’re “neither self-sufficient nor on the road to achieving self-sufficiency.” And if you’re old – over 65 – or sick, eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, those are negative factors, too. Back in the 1900s, the sick weren’t let in at Ellis Island, either. They were quarantined, then shipped back to their homelands.

Trump’s government said the proposal would affect only people coming here in the future, not current “green card” holders, who must wait for five years before applying for anything. But the Center for American Progress calculates 400,000 current green card holders could be evicted from our shores.

And that “coming here in the future” detail is lost at the local level, where the “green card” holders, permanent legal residents, already suffer under Trump’s plan, even before it fully takes effect.

A woman from green card holder Nicaragua who had lived here, legally, for more than 20 years, according to the Miami Herald, was deported in July, for example. And reports current green card holders there are not using Medicaid to pay for health care, even when they’re eligible to get it. Instead, they’re not going to the doctor’s office.

The “public charge” requirements are part of the Trump government’s campaign against any immigrant – documented and undocumented, green card holder, DACA beneficiary or even a little kid – who is, in so many words, not from a white Northern European country. Indeed, Trump himself said previously he’d welcome rich, white immigrants from Norway, for example, but not from non-white nations.

All this angers advocates for immigrants, including unions. It’s also scared current “green card” holders and permanent resident immigrants into not seeking benefits they need to get through tough times.

“This proposed rule goes against who we are as Americans,” Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry said. “We are a nation that welcomes immigrants, rescues refugees, and aspires to treat people equally regardless of creed, color, or where they come from.”

“If this proposal is finalized, it could force families to forego needed healthcare or go hungry or become homeless in exchange for the opportunity of becoming a green card holder in the future. Parents will have to choose between taking their children to the doctor or being able to watch their children grow and remain together as a family,” an angry Henry added.

“It’s unconscionable to force this decision on people who are trying to build a better life at the same time that hundreds of children fleeing persecution have been forcibly separated from their parents.”

“This will have lasting consequences not just on the well-being of working families, but also the communities in which they live. Immigrants pay city, county, state and federal taxes that contribute to their communities, and finance healthcare and social service programs. If they are driven into the shadows or out of this country, everyone will suffer.”

Added Alison Hirsh of SEIU 32BK, the union sector which represents janitors, custodians and cleaners: “The proposed ‘public charge’ rule is a shameful attempt to punish working-class immigrants for accessing the healthcare, housing and nutrition programs they need to support their families and survive in our country.”

“The proposed rule would radically reshape our legal immigration system, putting the wealthy at the front of the line, ahead of hardworking families who have waited years to reunite,” hundreds of community groups protested in a statement to DHS. “No longer would the U.S. be a beacon for the world’s dreamers and strivers. Instead, America’s doors would be open only to the highest bidder.”

Henry had one final word for Trump and his GOP allies who push the restrictive rules: Her two million members will remember in November.

“SEIU members are standing strong in our union to stand up and fight back. We are fighting for our nation’s soul and to protect immigrant communities across the country. President Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have the power to do the right thing. If they don’t, we will hold them accountable for standing in the way of immigrant families and turning their back on working people,” she said.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.