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‘Public charge’ policy breaks American promise

Poor Emma Lazarus.

“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she wrote in 1883, words memorized by every school child, an iconic representation of the promise of America. In the poem, Lazarus referred to the Statue of Liberty as the “Mother of Exiles.”

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Last week, those words were unapologetically revised by Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

He was defending the latest attack in the war on immigrants: the new “Public Charge” rule. The unprecedented policy will favor wealthy immigrants and allow authorities to deny legal status to those who have received public benefits or who are deemed likely to do so in the future —benefits to which they are entitled.

What does this rule mean? It means that if families need help, they now face the impossible choice of deciding between seeing a doctor for a medical emergency and risking their future here in America. They must choose between feeding their family and risking deportation and separation from their American-born children. It means they may be unable to reunite with their fiances or their spouses.

So many families — like mine, for instance — could easily never have gotten the chance to become U.S. citizens under such a brutal policy.

My parents fled a civil war in Sri Lanka and came to the U.S. on a green card. They came with no jobs, just $200 in their pockets and a baby and toddler to care for. We lived as a family of four in a tiny basement apartment in Baltimore and made ends meet through the generosity of extended family -- which we were lucky enough to have — along with a community that supported and welcomed us.

Not every immigrant is so lucky.

A few must rely on some form of public assistance for a limited period of time – because they are fleeing from gang violence, from bombs and machine guns, from desperate situations. They come with nothing. A few need help to re-start their lives.

Clouds gather over the Statue of Liberty, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in New York. A plaque inside the statue's pedestal displaying Emma Lazarus 1883 poem "The Colossus," best known for its line about welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," was brought to light Tuesday when Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli suggested in an NPR interview that the line should be changed to "give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Clouds gather over the Statue of Liberty, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in New York. A plaque inside the statue's pedestal displaying Emma Lazarus 1883 poem "The Colossus," best known for its line about welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," was brought to light Tuesday when Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli suggested in an NPR interview that the line should be changed to "give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge." (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) (Kathy Willens/AP)

The very literal rewriting of perhaps our most American symbol (besides being an amazing display of hubris) not only undermines our values, it’s based on the ignorant and just plain wrong myth that immigrants take more in public benefits than they give in taxes. In Baltimore, where my organization, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, is headquartered, 9% of businesses are foreign owned, and immigrant households account for 9% percent, or $964 million, of local spending power, according to the director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. And between 2005 and 2014, refugees contributed $63 billion more in taxes and other revenue than they cost, according to a Department of Health and Human Services study.

News of the proposed rule spread fast among immigrant communities. It is already having a chilling effect. According to a May survey by the Urban Institute, 14.7% of adults in permanent resident families, a population not targeted by the rule, reported they avoided public assistance out of fears that their immigration status might be affected.

The promise of America has always been that, if you put in the effort, you can surmount your difficulties, start over and achieve. This rule breaks that promise — but only for the poor.

This new rule is not just un-American, it’s downright hostile to the Bible, which includes more than 2,000 references to poverty and how Christians are to live out God’s love for those who are less fortunate. People of all faiths have decried this heartless policy and sought to remind our leaders of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Our America is under attack – but it’s not from the outside. Our ideals of freedom and equality must extend to everyone for us to remain that more perfect union. The Public Charge rule must be overturned.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is President and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (Twitter: @LIRSorg). Her family fled Sri Lanka and sought refuge in the United States when she was 9 months old.

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