Steve Tobocman is a former Michigan State representative and the executive director of Global Detroit, a nonprofit focused on immigrant-inclusive economic development strategies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
On January 27th, the US Supreme Court cleared the way for implementation of the Trump administration’s so-called “public charge” rule change, a monumental shift in federal immigration policy that is projected to impact some 24 million Americans and millions more seeking to come to the United States. The new rule essentially creates a wealth test for immigrants that is based on factors like their age, health, education, income and resources. US immigration officials can use the results of this test to deny applicants seeking admission into the United States or those who are applying for lawful permanent residency (commonly known as “green card” status”) on the grounds that the person is likely to become a “public charge” in need of government benefits.
Ironically, Trump’s public charge rule change promises devastating economic consequences. In a November 2019 report, the Fiscal Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan research organization, predicted the public charge rule change would shrink the nation’s economy by $24 billion annually, with a related loss of 164,000 jobs lost across the country and lost tax revenue in every state. When America closes its doors to those seeking economic opportunity and the American Dream, as well as those wishing to reunite with family already here, we close the doors to the future generations of our economy.
The new rule allows officials to reject green card applications or immigration requests from those who might one day use public benefits — going as far as to suggest that only families who earn more than 250% of the federal poverty level or $64,375 for a family of four are to be scored favorably in making public charge decisions.
More than a half-dozen legal challenges were filed when the rule was announced and five district courts granted temporary injunctions — pausing the implementation of the new rule until those cases could be fully adjudicated — but the Supreme Court’s decision lifts those injunctions and allows the rule to go into effect this week. These legal challenges will still be heard by the federal courts, but millions of US families may now face a choice between accessing food, housing and health care benefits — benefits for which they legally qualify — and the ability to seek future changes in their immigration status, such as applying for a green card.
Trump’s public charge policy reshapes our national immigration policy. I am pretty certain my grandfather would not have passed the test when he immigrated to the United States to flee anti-Semitism (just in time to avoid the Holocaust) and I suspect tens of millions of Americans also trace their lineage to immigrant relatives who would have been unable to demonstrate earnings that would have met the type of thresholds being implemented by the new public charge rule.
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Economists predict, and advocates claim to already have observed, that the rule change will have a “chilling effect” on immigrant families — including those with US-citizen children — dissuading them from accessing housing, food and nutrition programs, as well as health care, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), to which they are legally entitled. This “chilling effect” happens because, even if the new rule does not apply to them, immigrant families may worry that accessing these benefits will somehow jeopardize their legal status.
The “chilling effect” also means that fewer immigrant families will access these programs and, thus, there will be less spending at grocery stores where SNAP benefits are spent, as well as throughout the food production chain — including food delivery, food storage, food processing and even agriculture. There will be less spending on housing. Hospitals and other medical care providers who serve Medicaid and CHIP clients also will bear significant costs. The policy will increase uncompensated and emergency room care.
But the real economic costs are much greater. Indeed, welcoming immigrants has been the driver of America’s prosperity for centuries. Locking that door on all those who can’t pass a fairly substantial income test changes our national character.
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