The cruelty of public charge

By Ally Mark, AAAF Fellow

On February 24, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security enacted their public charge rule, disproportionately striking fear into the lives of immigrants of color. Against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of public comments, skeptical questions from appeals courts, and lawsuits from several states, immigrant rights organizations, and individuals, the Supreme Court intervened to allow, without reason, US Customs and Immigration Services to proceed. The rule clearly serves the Trump administration’s plans to dramatically expand their efforts to restrict who is legally allowed to stay in the country.

A discriminatory wealth test

Claiming that “self-sufficiency has long been a basic principle of U.S. immigration law,” Trump’s version of the rule boils down to an unprecedented wealth test for immigrants, yet another example of his quest to stop immigration from non-white countries. According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice, this amounts to a penalty to older immigrants and immigrants who are “low-income, lack English language proficiency, have chronic medical conditions, and lack access to private health insurance, educational opportunities, and credit.” 

Now, USCIS promises to deny green cards, or permanent legal status, to immigrants who use – or even simply deemed likely to use – however sparingly, basic public benefits. These include noncash programs like Medicaid, food stamps, and Section 8 housing vouchers. The rule now also extends to those attempting to extend their visas or to change their nonimmigrant status. Under previous administrations, public charge applied only to extreme cases, preventing fewer than one percent of applicants from receiving a green card.

Trump hits the AAPI community

Trump’s bigotry against non-white people now blatantly and directly impacts the AAPI community. According to a study, of almost one million recent green card holders that do not meet the current public charge requirements, one third are from Asian countries. Immigrants from Asian countries often demonstrate higher rates of limited English proficiency and rely on the family reunification system (another target of Trump’s racist ire). Many refugees or asylum seekers, simply trying to escape trauma and persecution, will face even higher barriers. Such an expansive new rule forces immigrants, those seeking – or even just thinking – to change their visa status, students wrapping up their studies, and current green card holders to reconsider basic life choices, just to obtain or protect their legal status.

AAPI immigrants, often distrustful of national governments, already under-use social services. Now, public charge further discourages this vulnerable community from applying for and using public benefits. It will push already-struggling immigrant AAPI families further into poverty and strip them of fresh foods, housing, and healthcare. Evidence of AAPI immigrants dropping out of public benefits programs is already mounting.

Moreover, this community, whose family structure often includes close relationships between several generations, will face difficulties bringing over parents, grandparents, and other family members. Or, they will not risk it at all. While still unclear how many immigrants public charge will disqualify from legal status, we will never know how many future immigrants could be chilled from even attempting to seek a better life in America.

The new normal

The Trump administration has displayed nothing but a destructive lack of empathy for people of color generally, but especially immigrants. Even naturalized citizens are not off-limits anymore. But the public charge threatens the most vulnerable immigrants in this country, and their families. The vast, vast majority of these incredibly strong, resilient people come to America believing, to their core, in the American promise for equal treatment and the opportunity for a better life. What could possibly be more American?

We in the AAPI community must rally for our communities of color. As if we needed a reminder that, ultimately, with this president, nobody is safe. Trump makes cruelty the new normal. But this means we can fight back. Donate to immigrant rights groups. Volunteer at a local refugee resettlement organization. Call your elected officials. And never forget that showing compassion and empathy in your daily lives is more than he and his administration could ever achieve.