Trump's Public Charge Rule Is a Cover-Up for Racism—With Disturbing Historical Origins | Opinion

New York, Connecticut and Vermont announced Tuesday that they have filed a lawsuit against the federal agencies that are set to implement the Trump administration's xenophobic and racist "public charge" immigration rule.

In a blistering statement, New York Attorney General Letitia James denounced the administration's "thinly veiled efforts to only allow those who meet their narrow ethnic, racial and economic criteria to enter our nation."

America's immigration history is a continuum of such discriminatory policies of exclusion, enacted in the name of economic prosperity, national security and public safety: African Americans, women and Native populations were once not included as citizens; immigration quotas have heavily favored Northern and Western Europeans; a whole continent of people was banned under the Asian Exclusion Act; and now an entire religious community is being barred with a Muslim ban.

But at every turn, time unveiled these policies and laws for what they were: proxies for racism and xenophobia.

Last week, acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli defended the public charge rule, which would deny green cards to poor legal immigrants, as based on principles that the federal government has followed "for more than 100 years."

It's true that this wealth-based immigration standard has historical origins. After all, building upon state regulation of immigrants, one of America's first general immigration law included a public charge provision. The 1882 federal law rejected "any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge."

And just like every public charge law that has come since, it was tied to discrimination and bigotry. These laws were racist and xenophobic then, and they remain so today.

The Trump administration's public charge rule gives the Department of Homeland Security vast powers to deny immigration status to people who apply for or receive any of a wide array of public benefits. According to the 837-page regulation, the U.S. government will open the doors of permanent residence only to immigrants deemed "self-sufficient" through a highly discretionary process to go into effect this October.

The administration claims the rule will save the U.S. government billions of dollars, as those who qualify for public benefits will forego them or disenroll to avoid being barred from permanent status under the new policy. It also claims the policy will serve as a deterrent to immigrants coming to the United States due to the lower availability of public benefits.

Make no mistake: Using "self-sufficiency" and "economic savings" as justification for immigration policies has always been a pretense for discrimination.

As potato famine ravaged Ireland in the 1840s, masses of Irish immigrants arrived on the shores of America's Northeast, only to be met by brutal prejudice. The "nativists," a burgeoning anti-immigrant political movement, worried the Irish Catholics seeking refuge from poverty and starvation would dilute the new nation with their papal influences and accused them of bringing disease, drunkenness and depravity to the New World.

Paired with this religious bigotry and xenophobia were questions of self-reliance. Were the immigrants undeservedly deriving benefits from their new home? Would they lower the quality of America?

But immigrant labor was a needed commodity after the Civil War, as the nation was constructing its canals and railroads, and so the doors of immigration remained mostly open at the federal level throughout the Reconstruction period. Like clockwork, the American story was being written once again: first on the genocide and removal of Native populations, then upon the backs of slave labor and finally on the sweat of forced laborers and immigrants long deemed undesirable.

Soon after, however, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1882, and federal policy has maintained barriers against poverty-stricken immigrants ever since. Public charge policies have also been weaponized against the Italians, Jews, Chinese and others deemed undesirable upon their early arrival to the United States.

Now, the Trump administration's expanded rule is adding public programs like Medicaid and food stamps, which didn't exist until the mid-20th century, to the factors used to weed out potential "public charges."

Immigrants Ellis Island
Immigrants arrive to Ellis Island, New York, circa 1880. The Immigration Act of 1882 rejected “any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.” Fotosearch/Stringer/Getty

To compound this new rule's xenophobic impact, in many scenarios, it leaves the inherently subjective self-sufficiency determination in the hands of a Department of Homeland Security officer. In other words, the complex determination of who is likely to become a public charge in the future will be colored by the personal biases and prejudices of a single federal employee.

Today, it isn't the Irish being targeted, but those arriving at our southern border. Today, the accusations are not of drunkenness, depravity or control by the pope, but of gang membership, terrorism and criminality. The Irish would eventually assimilate into the white populace, unaffected by Jim Crow laws, intermarrying with other European Americans. For people of color, though, allegations of government dependence would stick for generations to come.

To justify the expansion of public charge laws as historically based ignores the root motivations behind them. Then, as now, policies that called for the deportation and exclusion of the poor, sick and dependent are a guise for attempts to slam America's door shut to minorities.

Nermeen Arastu is an associate law professor and co-director of the Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic at the CUNY School of Law.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.