President Donald Trump’s supporters often try to justify his anti-immigration rhetoric and policies by saying he’s just trying to force people to follow the law when they come to this country. It’s not prejudice or xenophobia, they say, it’s just a matter of expecting people to wait in line.
But if the incident in which Mr. Trump proclaimed a desire for more immigrants from countries like Norway (read: rich and white) and not from “s---hole” countries like Haiti and much of Africa (read: poor and black or brown) wasn’t enough to prove otherwise, his administration’s actions this week should erase all doubt. Acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Kenneth Cuccinelli II announced new rules Monday for legal immigrants seeking a green card that would deny them permanent status in this country if they are deemed likely to use public benefits — including food stamps and Medicare. In the name of preventing immigrants from being a “drain” on our nation, the rule would give the Trump administration broad leeway to decide who is worthy and who is not, and to deport those it deems undesirable. The federal government has long been able to deny permanent status to people who are dependent on public benefits, but these new rules stretch the bounds of that principle in a way that’s almost perfectly designed to favor immigrants who are white over those who aren’t.
We would say that’s un-American, but it sadly has plenty of precedent in centuries of racist immigration policies, whether it was the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19th century or the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 that was designed to keep out Jews and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. We would have hoped that the nation had evolved to the point where elected officials wouldn’t treat immigrants trying to come here to build a better life as parasites, but apparently not.
Trump officials are trying to couch this policy as an economic one, but that argument fails. Discouraging immigrants from enrolling in Medicaid, for example, will only mean higher costs to the health care system as they forego basic treatment until they wind up in an emergency room. Denying people the meager benefit of food stamps — about $31 a week, typically — is not only cruel but counter-productive; U.S. Department of Agriculture research found that every dollar of food stamps generated $1.54 in economic activity.
Moreover, our current immigration system produces a massively disproportionate share of entrepreneurship — a quarter of all new businesses nationwide are started by immigrants, and the figure is as high as 40 percent in states with large immigrant populations. That’s the power of allowing in people willing to take big risks to secure a better future for themselves and their children, not people who already have it made.
It’s astonishing that the administration would move forward with this rule in the wake of the racist mass shooting in El Paso, in which the alleged perpetrator reportedly targeted Mexicans who he believed were “replacing” America’s white majority. The language coming out of the White House is all about “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” but the dog whistle to Mr. Trump’s base is that non-white immigrants from poor countries are coming here to take advantage of America, not to fulfill its promise of opportunity for all. They didn’t use words like “invasion,” but the subtext is clear enough.
Immigrant rights groups plan to sue in an attempt to block the rule, which is due to go into effect Oct. 15. We certainly hope they succeed. But the Trump administration has already gotten what it wanted. It has struck fear into millions of immigrants who will now be reluctant to take advantage of assistance programs to which they are legally entitled out of a very real concern that it could one day lead to their deportation and the fracturing of their families. And it stirred again the anti-immigrant passions in Mr. Trump’s base that were a key component of his election strategy three years ago. When he said he would make America great again, he meant he would make it white again, and that message was lost on no one.
Once again, President Trump is proving that he represents an old America we thought we had left behind. We have to be better than this.