Allison Pujol: Waiting outside the golden door

Sunday, February 9, 2020 - 3:13pm

Poet Emma Lazarus’s words displayed on the Statue of Liberty will likely be remembered for decades to come. The text of her poem “The New Colossus,” which experts have praised for both its poise and defiance, ends with an iconic, powerful call to action: “ ‘Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’ ” 

While speaking to NPR’s Morning Edition to announce a new immigration regulation, Ken Cuccinelli, acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), suggested in a smirking aside to “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” 

“No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American,” said Cuccinelli, director of the agency primarily responsible for immigration and citizenship applications in the United States. Many in immigration policy circles have been attentive to the recent Supreme Court ruling about Cuccinelli’s proposed public charge rule that has restricted legal immigration in the U.S. Put simply, the “public charge” rule renders an individual ineligible for permanent legal residence status (also known as a “green card” or LPR) if they receive in-kind (i.e., non-cash) government assistance such as Medicaid, housing vouchers or food stamps. For some, perhaps the logic seems intuitive enough: Given that government assistance is funded by taxpayers, the cost of thousands of immigrants qualifying and receiving welfare every year would be enormous for U.S. citizens. (Please do note that non-citizens also do pay taxes, and that is often a condition to receive LPR). 

The reality is that there are already fairly restrictive guidelines in place that determine who can and cannot obtain legal permanent residence in the U.S. To have a decent chance at legal permanent residency, immigrants need to produce an affidavit of support that indicates they or a close relative who is already a citizen earns a steady, substantial income. And that’s just one example — there are many biometric screening procedures in place to confirm that immigrants or their families are considered adequate for legal permanent residence. 

Now, under the new public charge regulation, an immigrant who has received assistance within 36 months (three years) of applying for legal permanent residence or seems “likely” to receive assistance at some point in the future will be ineligible. For example, a single mother who receives government benefits while she searches for employment in the U.S., secures a job and then applies for legal permanent residence would be ineligible even if she or her children never received government assistance ever again. 

Many supporters of the new regulation insist that the regulation is only an extension of prior policy. Prior to the new USCIS regulation, immigration officials did not typically enforce the public charge rule as it was difficult to assess what it meant for somebody to be “likely” to receive assistance and the rule seemed fairly counter-intuitive. After all, many immigrants come to the U.S. in search of better employment, housing or education opportunities than in their home countries. Some immigrants who flee the social or political conditions in their home countries may be unable to take forms of material wealth with them into the U.S., and it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone should have the means to make it in America immediately upon arriving. 

It is also worth noting that over-arching regulations and bans are unprecedented in American immigration law. Both President Jimmy Carter’s Iran order and President Ronald Reagan’s Cuba proclamation, which invoked the need for a national security-based limit on immigration visas, adopted a case-by-case approach. In the dissenting opinion in Trump v. Hawaii, Justice Stephen Breyer pondered, “... if those two Presidents thought a case-by-case exemption system appropriate, what is different about present circumstances that would justify that system’s absence?” 

It is important to call out the new regulation for exactly what it is. The new public charge rule sends the message that immigrants are only welcome if they can come to the U.S. with substantial means and resources, which is both disconnected from reality and socially irresponsible. Public health experts are also worried that the new rule won’t limit immigration flows into the U.S. but rather convince immigrants to stop seeking healthcare through Medicaid or other public health benefits. 

This past weekend, an abandoned dump trailer filled with dirt in Texas was found to contain 36 immigrants inside, hidden beneath layers of gravel and sand. The people hidden inside had crossed the border illegally, police concluded, but it was unclear when or where. In the articles describing the discovery of the trailer, the immigrants in question are nameless, huddled together in a grassy space that could be anywhere. I wonder if Cuccinelli, who had never worked at USCIS before being promoted to acting director in 2019, has ever thought about what it must feel like to feel so unsafe in your own country that you would do anything to leave. I also wonder if Ian Smith, an immigration analyst at the Department of Homeland Security who helped architect the public charge regulation (and recently resigned when it was discovered he had clear ties to white nationalist groups and used derogatory language towards Jewish people), thinks that all immigrants are poor, tired and huddled masses covered in dirt.

If we hark back to Lazarus’s words on Lady Liberty, it is apparent that current immigration policy does not represent the poet’s values inscribed on the U.S.’s most recognizable monument. We have, in some profound way, abandoned the lamp beside the golden door.  

Allison Pujol can be reached at ampmich@umich.edu.