White supremacy fuels ‘public charge’ proposal

Caucasian anxiety is spurring anti-immigrant policies

I THINK IT’S SOME SORT of dystopian rule that the things with the most innocuous names often have the most pernicious effects. The newest entrant into that category is the US Department of Homeland Security’s proposed “public charge” rule, which seeks to deny anyone a green card if they have used some form of public assistance.

There’s been a longstanding rule about immigrants not being dependent on welfare benefits. Yet the new DHS policy, submitted to the Federal Register on October 5, would expand that definition to health benefits, food assistance, and housing vouchers. It’s a rule change designed to weed vulnerable, working families out of the system.

It’s part of an unmistakable drive by the current administration to institute anti-immigrant policies. Previously, the White House has sought to end temporary protected status for residents who came from various violence- and disaster-stricken nations, and who subsequently have become hard-working, high-contributing US residents. The president attempted to scuttle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which remains in place thanks only to a court mandate. The administration has even tried to curb the flow of refugees from nations suffering from conflicts in which we’ve been active participants, such as Syria and Yemen. Most notoriously, President Trump and his staff found it fit to rip children away from their parents and put them in detention as they sought asylum, and more than a hundred still have not been united with their parents.

The federal government is applying a bureaucratic vice designed to squeeze out as many people as possible, strip them of their documentation, and then remove them via a beefed-up deportation regime. Many of these policies will work in conjunction to pull families root and stem out of the communities they call home. For instance, somebody who has lived here for close to a decade under temporary protected status will need to file for a change in status, if that program is ceased. Under the proposed public charge rule, a person whose family received various food or health benefits—even modest ones, say, when they were briefly between jobs—stands to be denied.

In Somerville, where we have 10,000-plus immigrant residents, we’ve seen hundreds of people getting chewed up by the ever-shifting and more draconian rules being put into effect. People who have built lives here and have families of mixed status (including loved ones who are citizens) are trying to navigate their way through a system increasingly designed to reject them. That gets at the corrosive effects of public charge. It threatens to turn taking care of your most basic needs—health, food, shelter—against you.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone

It will drive people underground, afraid that even those who wish to help them ultimately could be providing fodder for having them removed from the country. It becomes impossible to know what or who to trust. Even though free vaccinations, some nutritional aid, and various school programs aren’t currently counted as “public charge,” people may shy away from them for fear that at some point they will become retroactive marks against them.

Over the long-term, people being driven into the shadows will have serious public health and safety consequences. And as any health or safety expert knows, consequences for the few tend to spill over and affect the many, which means all of us. We strive to have an open, inclusive community, so that everybody can be reached in times of emergency and so that nobody is falling through the cracks into desperation. These are our neighbors. If people on your block are suffering, then your neighborhood is suffering. Increased poverty, increased use of emergency rooms, and increased spread of communicable diseases doesn’t help anyone.

And then there’s the toxic mix of elitism and white supremacy fueling public charge. The proposed rule also would allow federal officials to deny people entry or continued residency based on whether they might someday require public assistance. Don’t give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We are now creating a rule that would have denied most of our ancestors the chance to come here and build better lives for themselves. I grew up in an immigrant family that lived in an immigrant city, and almost none of us would have been there if we had been subjected to these rules. Our parents didn’t have enough education. Our families had too many kids. We weren’t rolling in money.

I’m the mayor of a city built by those who worked their way up, not who bought their way in. You can take a virtual trip around the world inside the 4.1 square miles we call home. One of the things we’re fighting for these days is to make sure we retain that diversity – economic, ethnic and racial – in the face of rising housing costs. We understand that’s a core part of our communal soul. We want to remain a place where people can start at the bottom and build a good life.

It’s an ethos our federal government is seeking to reject, and make no mistake that most of the people it’s seeking to reject have darker skin. When you dig into what’s animating groups that support public charge, like the Center for Immigration Studies or the Federation for American Immigration Reform, they push code-word-heavy messages that insist immigrants will somehow undermine our “culture.”

Once again, it’s a case of innocuous sounding names with pernicious effects. What they mean is more immigrants makes us less white as a nation, hoping to stoke Caucasian anxiety. They scarcely can be called subtle about it anymore.

The good news is these proposed public charge rules are still in the public comment phase. People and organizations have been sounding the alarm for how small-minded, cruel, and ill-advised this policy change would be. City and state governments are making their opposition known. Attorneys are fighting an overlooked and heroic battle to save people in our immigration courts. Each of us must also individually stand up against the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant push. People are fighting back, making sure we don’t bake this level of cruelty into the process.

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The important thing is to shine a light on just how mean-spirited and destructive our government is seeking to be. This level of elitism and this brand of bureaucratic assault should not be allowed to stand.

Joseph Curtatone is the mayor of Somerville.