Trump’s proposed exclusion for green card seekers hearkens back to a legacy of xenophobia
Recently, the Trump administration introduced a new proposal entitled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” that would limit green card applicants. The new rule would specifically target applicants with disabilities. Though new, the policy is hardly innovative. In fact, it is a throwback to America’s tainted immigration history.
The proposal broadens a federal immigration law familiarly known as the “public charge.” The new rule would strongly encourage immigration case-workers to deny green cards to immigrants deemed likely to be unable to support themselves.
The public charge legal designation is not new, though the ranks of its designees have grown and shrunk over the years. Currently, immigrants are at risk of being designated a public charge for long-term reliance on cash aid from programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or if they are institutionalized for long-term care paid for by Medicaid. The new proposal would expand that. The new, broader public charge designation could be applied to someone who receives
any government assistance in the form of cash, checks or other forms of money transfers, or instruments and non-cash government assistance in the form of aid, services, or other relief, that is means-tested or intended to help the individual meet basic living requirements.
The proposal also specifies the kind of immigrant who should be given green card priority. An immigrant who meets a threshold of 250 percent of the federal poverty level—via financial assets, resources, support, or salary—would have precedence for receiving a green card. For a family of four, 250 percent of the federal poverty level is $62,750 a year. That is $12,000 over the median earnings of white, full-time wage and salaried workers. The change singles out those with unsubsidized health insurance who have “costly medical conditions.”
Trump is restructuring immigration policy to exclude poor and disabled people. It is a retrogression, a rebirth of an older, darker American immigration policy—one founded on eugenics, xenophobia, and ableism.
The first comprehensive federal public charge law was passed in 1882—a year which had already made immigration history with the racist Chinese Exclusion Act. The Immigration Act of 1882 created a class of undesirables excluded from entry, which included any “convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.”
Over the next few decades the list of mental and physical defects to disqualify one for entry was increased. The 1891 Immigration Act changed the designation from one unable to take care of oneself, to likely to become a public charge. The expansion continued in 1903, 1907, and 1917 to exclude epilepsy, anyone who had been insane in the past five years, “imbeciles,” “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” “abnormal sex instincts,” and more generally, “such mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living.”
These laws were enacted as the eugenics movement took hold in the U.S. Eugenics is the morally abhorrent practice of trying to enhance the human race by intentionally preventing those with “undesirable” characteristics—generally, disabled people—from having children and perpetuating disability. One could improve the genetic destiny of the United States, it was argued, by restricting the genes that would complicate that future picture. As one prominent advocate, Charles Benedict Davenport, phrased it in 1909:
Shall we as intelligent people, proud of our control of nature in other respects, be content to do anything but vote more taxes or be satisfied with the great gifts and bequests that philanthropists have made for the support of this delinquent, defective, and dependent class? Shall we not rather take the steps that scientific study dictates, as necessary to dry up the springs that feed the torrent of defective and degenerate protoplasm?
The regulations guiding immigration inspectors to determine mental, physical, and moral deficiencies were very broad. Many rejected immigrants had stable jobs back home, or had been offered jobs while awaiting their hearing. The law even had the effect of stopping immigrants before they ever stepped on a boat to America. Because ships were charged with taking back excluded immigrants, many refused to sell tickets to anyone exhibiting a disability or abnormality. In these rushed judgments, many immigrants were excluded who were visibly disabled, but were in fact capable of supporting themselves.
Throughout this period, ableism continued to be inextricably bound up with racism and xenophobia. Historian Douglas C. Baynton documents this pervasive effect:
The criteria for excluding disabled persons were steadily tightened as the eugenics movement and popular fears about the decline of the national stock gathered strength. … In 1924, a new quota system was instituted, based on national origin, that severely limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe. In the debate leading up to this legislation, disability figured prominently. Quota advocates warned that particular nationalities were disproportionately prone to be mentally defective. Rhetoric about “the slow-witted Slav,” the poor physique of Jews, the “neurotic condition of our Jewish immigrants,” and the “degenerate and psychopathic types, which are so conspicuous and numerous among the immigrants,” was pervasive.
The tenets of the eugenics movement permeated immigration restrictions. As seen in a 1913 letter from an Ellis Island Commissioner to the Commissioner General:
[There is] no more important work to perform than that of picking out all mentally defective immigrants, for these are not only likely to join the criminal classes and become public charges, but by leaving feebleminded descendants they start vicious strains which lead to misery and loss in future generations and influence unfavorably the character and lives of hundreds of persons.
As the grounds for exclusion grew, the relation between disabilities and ethnicity strengthened. The Immigration Act of 1924 introduced national quotas to limit Southern and Eastern Europeans. Since aesthetics were vital to eugenics, immigrants with non-Northern European appearances were targets—all in the effort to keep out “degenerate” genes. Edward Alsworth Ross mentions an immigration restriction proponent describing various ethnic immigrants:
When he observed immigrants, he saw that “in every face there was something wrong. … There were so many sugar-loaf heads, moon-faces, slit mouths, lantern-jaws, and goose-bill noses that one might imagine a malicious jinn had amused himself by casting human beings in a set of skew molds discarded by the Creator.” Most new immigrants were physically inadequate in some way: “South Europeans run to low stature. A gang of Italian navvies filing along the street present, by their dwarfishness, a curious contrast to other people. The Portuguese, the Greeks, and the Syrians are, from our point of view, undersized. The Hebrew immigrants are very poor in physique…the polar opposite of our pioneer breed.”
The public charge policy was even used by anti-Semitic American government officials to prohibit Jews from escaping Nazi Germany—a nation which, inspired by the American eugenics movement, had taken eugenics to then-unheard-of extremes. As part of the project of denying German Jews, they employed these rhetorically effective strategies: the specter of increased unemployment, the fear of radicalization, and “it’s not our problem.” All three mirror our own discussions over immigration reform.
In the intervening decades, immigration and public charge laws gradually liberalized. In today’s renewed immigration discussion, the ableist and racist bases for immigration exclusion have mostly shifted from fear of contaminating a gene pool to fear of contaminating a national culture. The idea of the necessity of a public charge designation for immigrants is still with us today. Contemporary conservatives still accuse illegal immigrants of being drains on the welfare apparatus. Even legal immigrants often don’t escape this accusation. (The Atlantic’s Reihan Salam has a new book which includes, as part of its central argument, the above claim—though it does so, to the best of my knowledge, in a non-racist way.)
These accusations of immigrants overloading the labor force and draining the resources of native-born Americans are untrue. According to a recent Cato Institute study, immigrants are less likely to use welfare benefits than native-born Americans. When they do, they consume a smaller dollar amount than native-born Americans. “The average value of welfare benefits per immigrant was about $3,718 in 2016, about 39 percent less than the $6,081 average value of welfare benefits per native,” the study points out. Immigrants also have a net-zero impact on government budgets, according to another Cato Institute study. Only 17 percent of non-elderly legal immigrants are uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Legal immigrants have to wait five years after obtaining legal status before they can enroll in welfare benefits.
Few disabled immigrants fail the current public charge test. Trump’s proposal would drastically enlarge the possibility of exclusion of disabled immigrants. Trump’s proposed immigration rule would also act as a dark cloud over the heads of many legal immigrants. This would leave legal families in a catch-22. Enroll in needed healthcare benefits, but run the risk of having one’s legal status revoked under the new law. It is nothing short of economic terror.
The history of public charge is fraught with anti-Semitism, racism, ableism, and eugenics. Trump’s variation is now drenched in very similar unrealistic fears. At the cost of those already marginalized, Trump plays to a frightened and xenophobic base.