4 Reasons Trump’s Public Benefits Immigration Order is Un-American

By Nathan Kasai and Sarah Trumble

Less than a month into his Presidency, Donald Trump has already received widespread backlash for a series of immigration-related executive orders targeting undocumented immigrants. Now it appears he may single out immigrants who followed all the rules and waited in line to come to the U.S. legally. A recently leaked draft executive order threatens to drastically change the rules about when a legal immigrant can be barred from entry or even deported for being a “public charge” dependent on government assistance. The order attempts to justify itself on the false claim that immigrants drain U.S. public benefit programs, despite the fact that immigrants are already heavily restricted from access to such programs and the strong evidence that the majority of immigrants are less likely to use public benefits than native-born Americans. Beyond just those facts, there are four reasons why this immigration executive order would be un-American:

1. It would vastly expand what it means to be a “public charge.”

U.S. law currently allows the federal government to deport immigrants — or prevent them from entering the country in the first place — if they are or are likely to become “public charges.” But President Trump’s draft order would vastly expand what that means beyond someone who might be likely to need direct assistance programs we often think of as “welfare.” It would also include anyone who might ever benefit from any type of federal need-based assistance, including programs not traditionally considered “benefits”, like reduced-cost school lunches, child care subsidies, home heating assistance, or even college financial aid. The use of any public benefit program “for which eligibility or amount is determined in any way on the basis of income, resources, or financial need” could put someone at risk of deportation. That means, for example, a legal immigrant could potentially be kicked out of the country just for getting federal financial aid for college (immigrants are ineligible for most forms of federal financial aid but lawful permanent residents are eligible to receive Pell Grants) or for receiving federal adoption or foster care assistance if they take in children in need of a home.

2. It would punish children — especially those in mixed-status families.

The people who will suffer the most under this executive order are children — both U.S. citizen children whose parents are not naturalized and immigrant children who rely on the safety net. Most immigrants are prohibited from accessing federal benefits like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (some limited categories of immigrants — like refugees, survivors of trafficking, and people who have been abused — are treated differently than other groups of immigrants, including with regards to public benefits, and are not included in our discussion here.). To qualify for assistance, an adult would have to first immigrate here legally, then become a legal permanent resident, and then wait five years — and even then they would be limited in the types of benefits they could receive and be subject to lifetime limits. But when it comes to kids, we have different rules for things like their sustenance and education. For example, kids can qualify for the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program or attend Head Start regardless of their immigration status. And children who are legal permanent residents can access SNAP (food stamps) without waiting through the five year ban. And U.S. citizen children are eligible for all the same benefits every other American is — even if they live in mixed-status families with immigrant parents.

But many benefits are distributed to the head of the family — we can’t send a SNAP EBT card to a five-year-old. And those adults are the very people who could be deported for accessing public benefits under this executive order. These programs are designed to benefit children, not their immigrant parents — but under Trump’s order, the former may go hungry out of fear the latter could be deported. It is unconscionable that the Administration would put parents in a catch-22 situation of ensuring their children’s welfare or risking tearing their family apart.

3. The order could lead to widespread deportations of legal permanent residents even if they no longer need assistance.

This executive order wouldn’t just apply to immigrants who want to move to the United States. If its language matches the draft, it would also affect legal permanent residents who have already made their homes and built careers here, lived in America for years, and earned their green cards. If a legal permanent resident ever used any sort of federal need-based assistance, it could make them ineligible to become a citizen one day and in some circumstances even get them deported. Immigrants here on legal visas who have previously accessed federal need-based programs not considered “benefits” — like child care block grants or certain public health services — could also be deported. And depending on the final wording of the order and how it’s implemented, it could trigger the deportation of any immigrant who has ever used federal need-based assistance at any point in the past — even if they were legally qualified, it was years ago, and they are no longer using that benefit.

4. It would infringe on states’ ability to support their own residents.

The federal government has traditionally set the floor for public assistance — beyond that, states have been free to decide for themselves whether to provide more benefits or to offer them to more people. So where immigrants do have access to certain public assistance programs — like when pregnant women or children are allowed to enroll in states’ Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Programs even if they haven’t been a legal permanent resident for five years — they aren’t getting them through the federal government. But depending on how the final order is written and implemented, recipients of certain state benefits that are funded partially with federal dollars could also be at risk of deportation. Providing for their own residents has been and should remain the prerogative of individual states as they decide how to spend their own money and serve their local communities.

Like President Trump’s other immigration executive orders before it, this executive order would be un-American. We don’t deport people for using home heating assistance or participating in reduced-cost school lunch programs. We don’t punish children for their parents’ financial struggles or immigration status. We certainly don’t change the rules on people years after they’ve immigrated here nor deport them for using benefits we told them they could. And we don’t let the President unilaterally prevent states from deciding how to best support the people that live there. Neither our public benefits programs nor our immigration system are without flaws, but this executive order would do nothing to fix either.


Sarah Trumble is Deputy Director for Social Policy and Nathan Kasai is a fellow for the Social Policy and Politics Program at Third Way.

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