The White House is finalizing a proposal to penalize legal immigrants who’ve used public benefits programs, including Obamacare, children’s health insurance, food stamps, and the earned income tax credit. The brainchild of senior White House advisor-cum-lizard-person Stephen Miller, the plan would vastly expand the existing “public charge” provision, a law dating back to 1882 that stipulates that immigrants seeking a visa can be denied on the basis that they would need public assistance, and make it more difficult for immigrants who’ve used public benefits programs in the past to obtain green cards and citizenship.
Like the separation of children from families at the border, this would be an act of immeasurable cruelty. As the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) reports, numerous immigrant families have already unenrolled from critical healthcare and nutrition programs out of fear. The proposed regulation forces parents to make an “impossible choice,” said NILC Executive Director Marielena Hincapié in a statement, “between feeding their children, giving them healthcare, and having a future in this country.”
It would be easy to see this development as just the latest example of Miller’s exceptional ghoulishness or the far-right extremism of Trump’s racist “America First” immigration policy. But in the arc of US immigration policy, this proposal is not new. It draws on a long, bipartisan history of weaponizing the welfare state to police the border and terrorize poor and working-class immigrants — “legal” and “illegal” alike.
Undesirable Public Charges
The notion that certain immigrants are likely to milk the public coffers, justifying efforts to keep them out, are older than the nation itself. The origins of the “public charge” law can be traced to an upsurge in laws restricting the immigration of the poor, the disabled, and other “undesirables” during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
For example, a 1691 law enacted in colonial New York required that an immigrant have a “visible Estate” or a “manual occupation,” effectively creating a bond system that excluded and deported the poor and other groups at risk of becoming a “public charge,” effectively creating a bond system that excluded and deported the poor and other groups at risk of becoming a “public charge.” Ship captains in colonial Massachusetts were required to post bonds for “infirm” passengers or return them back to their home countries, since disabled people were thought to be particularly likely to become reliant on the the state for public assistance.
Such laws created the foundation for what was to come in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: a federal immigration system designed to bring in “productive,” easily exploitable workers.
Elite panic over the freeloading proclivities of poor and working class immigrants reached a fever pitch during the late nineeteenth century. As immigrants from Asia, Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe came into the country in larger numbers, arguments focused on economic as well as cultural reasons to slam the door.
By 1882, the “public charge” provision was enshrined in federal law through the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In practice, the provision was used to keep out the Irish, who were thought to be culturally deficient, as well as unwed mothers, homosexuals, and women whose professions challenged the norms of female domesticity, including seamstresses and sex workers.
During World War II, nativists used that provision to bolster their arguments that Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis should be denied entry to the United States. Opponents of the Wagner-Rogers bill, for instance, charged that Jewish refugee children would one day be “competitors with American citizens for American jobs.”
The anti-immigrant coalition Allied Patriotic Societies asked: “How about the thousands of our own children in our orphan asylums?” While President Roosevelt relaxed the public charge requirement somewhat, he did not overturn it entirely, and German Jews were routinely denied entry to the US for economic reasons.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, draconian immigration policies designed to keep out the poor and other “undesirables” reinforced the idea of immigrants as a drain on public resources. Such policies provided grounds for immigrants to be excluded from the polity altogether; they also supported the idea that immigrants (even legal ones) were second-class citizens, whose use of state assistance should be regulated and curtailed. This would set the stage for later attacks on immigrants’ public benefit use during the eighties and nineties.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan oversaw passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), further strengthening the 1882 “public charge” law and barring immigrants from receiving welfare, food stamps, and most other federal benefits for five years after gaining legal status.
The law, which cracked down on employers while at the same time offering a path to citizenship for millions, has been hailed as a landmark bipartisanship achievement — especially when viewed through the lens of Trump’s odious immigration policies. But aside from amplifying the racist rhetoric that cast welfare recipients as inherently lazy and suspicious, IRCA also helped keep the influx of cheap labor to low-paying employers and corporations in the service sector as weak as possible.
Depriving legal immigrants of public benefits meant they would have to accept any job they could find. A non-union gig with no supplemental benefits and low wages would have to suffice.
The “immigrant-as-government-mooch” trope reached new lows during the nineties.
In California, Republican governor Pete Wilson revived his slumping 1994 re-election bid by marshalling a potent trifecta of immigration, welfare, and crime anxieties. One particularly noxious campaign ad summoned the image of brown-skinned hordes taking over public schools on the taxpayer’s — always imagined as a white person — dime.
An announcer declares that there are 300,000 illegal immigrant children in public schools, costing the state $1.5 billion a year. Then Wilson chimes in: “It’s unfair to the people who are working hard, paying taxes, educating their children, and here we are rewarding people who enter the country illegally.”
Such views were far from fringe. They earned Wilson re-election in California as well as passage of Proposition 187, the Wilson-backed referendum that cut off all non-emergency services to undocumented immigrants.
Given the popularity of these dog-whistle appeals, it is perhaps no surprise that Democratic nominee Bill Clinton set off pursuing the discontented voters Wilson had spoken for. While he fashioned himself as a “third-way” technocrat, Clinton’s welfare reform and immigration legislation represented two of the most punitive policies toward immigrants the country had seen in decades.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 — also known as welfare reform — completely excluded undocumented people from cash assistance and, presaging Miller’s proposal, gave states the discretion to end welfare even for legal immigrants. Congressional debate over the bill contrasted an image of today’s brown and unassimilable masses with the Ellis Island newcomers of the past.
In a remark eerily similar to the rhetoric of the Trump administration, Texas Rep. Bill Archer observed: “My ancestors, and most of our ancestors, came to this country not with their hands out for welfare checks. They came here for the opportunity for freedom and the opportunity to work.”
Clinton also oversaw the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which drastically increased immigration “enforcement” measures and deportations while raising the minimum salary for sponsors of visa applicants.
“The idea is to control the legal immigration of less-than-affluent people,” Muzzafar Chishti, an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute, observed at the time.
It’s tempting to see the linking of welfare and immigration as a novel, far-right tactic of the Trump administration. But recent, bipartisan history tells us otherwise.
Tearing Down the Wall
In 1880, the New York State Board of Charities complained that Europe was sending only its “blind, idiotic, crippled, epileptic, lunatic, and other infirm paupers… in order thereby to avoid the burden of their support.” Nearly 140 years later, President Trump would share a similar sentiment, complaining that today’s immigrants hail only from “shithole countries” like Haiti and El Salvador, and suggesting that the United States recruit more immigrants from wealthy Scandinavian countries like Norway.
The Trump administration’s proposal to limit legal immigration is the latest salvo in an ongoing war against immigrants that should be resisted at every turn. But diagnosing this plan as purely an “alt right” anomaly is also a mistake.
Like Trump’s family separations policy at the border, the administration’s proposal to punish immigrants for using public benefits is not unprecedented. Similar policies have been supported by politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Anti-immigrant sentiment, especially the idea that immigrants are a drain on public resources, did not arise overnight. Like Trump’s wished-for border wall, it was built — brick by brick, decade by decade. To tear it down, the Left must respond with robust defenses of both immigration and public benefit use — and avoid following the centrist Democrats who brought us here in the first place.