Last year, Baltimore area food bank operators noticed a significant downturn in Latino clients. They worried that local immigrants — with legal status and green cards — were deliberately avoiding applying for the SNAP program out of fear that they’d be targeted for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Such was the power of the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from President Donald Trump and members of his administration.
Now, those fears appear to have been wholly justified with the announcement over the weekend of new rules from the Department of Homeland Security that could deny visas or work permits to any immigrant who was found to have ever used public benefits. In addition to food stamps, that includes Medicaid, Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits and Section 8 housing vouchers. Using such benefits above a certain level would be considered “a heavily weighed negative factor” in granting green cards and temporary stays.
The Trump administration’s thinking appears to be that individuals who are working in low-paying jobs or seasonal work or have suffered a serious illness in the family or the other various ways they might have qualified for subsidized food, shelter or housing aren’t fit to remain in this country or become full-fledged citizens. It is a serious rewriting of the American dream. No longer is this country looking for “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it’s looking for affluent people to buy their way in.
Make no mistake, this has nothing to do with undocumented immigration. Such individuals aren’t eligible for public benefits. Instead, this is an effort to make the United States less hospitable to people who are here legally — and perhaps to save taxpayers some money. Administration officials claim the new rules could reduce spending up to $2.7 billion annually as individuals who are eligible for federal aid choose to not apply for it. But that requires a highly selective type of accounting.
What happens when families choose not to get help with housing, medications or food? They suffer. They are hungrier, sicker, poorer. Perhaps the 380,000 or more affected will reach out to soup kitchens or shelters or maybe they’ll simply go without — or, sadly, some may turn to crime in desperation. The list of those likely to do the suffering include a lot of children since studies show that nearly half of all SNAP benefits go to people under the age of 18. And for what reason? Why treat people who are here lawfully as lesser beings? To punish them for “playing by the rules,” as Trump supporters like to say when they distinguish “legal” immigrants from the “illegal” variety?
Are we not a nation of immigrants? Do we not have compassion? Terrorizing immigrant families into not using basic public assistance, the social safety net programs that we can all rely on if times get hard, isn’t an American value. It just isn’t. Instead, what appears to be happening with this rule-making so close to midterm elections is yet another effort to pit Trump supporters against Latino immigrants. The administration wants to paint such individuals with a broad and often racist brush — not as hardworking aspiring U.S. citizens but as rapists, murders, MS-13 gang members or, in this case, freeloaders who intend to live on the dole.
While it’s true that new arrivals often come without much in the way of tangible assets and their first jobs are low-paying and they sometimes need help, studies have shown that their children and grandchildren tend to prosper, more than making up for whatever public benefits they required. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report that found refugees “brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they cost.” That makes the economics of the DHS plan questionable at best.
If the Trump administration wants to save money or reduce the deficit, it’s not difficult to come up with suggestions — reducing government subsidies to commercial activities alone could save the government tens of billions of dollars; raising the federal gas tax rate to keep up with inflation since it was last raised a quarter-century ago would accomplish even more. But those more meaningful actions wouldn’t provide the president with a political talking point going into November. Better, apparently, to “get tough” on vulnerable families.