OPINION: Barring Immigrants Who Are Likely To Become Public Charges Is Good Policy

John Moore/Getty Images

Ira Mehlman Ira Mehlman is the media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Font Size:

Immigration is a public policy, but that reality is largely ignored in the ongoing debate. Ideally, public policies are supposed to serve identifiable public interests. At a very minimum, they are expected to do no harm.

Recent data indicate that about half of all immigrant households in the United States rely on at least one form of public assistance to meet their basic needs. That compares with about 30 percent of native households.

Given that the foreign-born population of the United States now stands at about 45 million people, the disproportional reliance of immigrants on public assistance falls way short of the minimal expectation that our policies do no harm.

The Trump administration is undertaking an effort to limit further damage by enforcing laws that have been on the books, in form or another, since 1882 and reaffirmed by Congress as recently as 1996.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a proposal to change how the public charge rule is applied to prospective immigrants.

According to DHS, a public charge refers to a person “who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”

The DHS proposal attempts to more realistically define the sorts of programs that would categorize immigrants, or prospective immigrants, as being primarily dependent on the government to meet basic needs.

Under the proposed rule, very expensive public programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicare Part D, and some housing programs would be added to the list. People who are unlikely to be able to afford food, basic medical care or a place to live can be reasonably defined as public charges.

Predictably, advocates who view immigration solely from the perspective of the immigrants themselves argue that the proposed rule change amounts to punishing people for being poor. What is ignored, however, is that immigration is not a right but a privilege.

Withholding a benefit, based on objective criteria (such as someone’s likelihood to be self-sufficient) is not a punishment. It is a reasonable step to protect public interest and prudent stewardship of public benefit programs that many Americans rely on.

Immigration presents an asymmetrical relationship between immigrants and the receiving society. Immigration, by definition, always benefits immigrants. Nobody leaves their homeland and settles in another country unless it serves a substantial interest. And if that interest is not served, chances are they will not stay.

It does not automatically follow, however, that the opposite is true. Immigration may (and often does) benefit the receiving society. But it also may not (and often does not) benefit the greater good of the receiving society.

Moreover, immigrants whose expectations are not being met by the United States can essentially fire us by returning to their homelands, but we cannot fire them. As such, the United States, like every immigrant-receiving nation, has a legitimate and compelling interest to employ objective criteria for selecting who comes here.

A big part of the problem that has created the need for the new DHS rule is our fatally flawed family chain-migration policy, which bestows benefits on people because they are lucky enough to be related to someone else who arrived recently while shutting out others who objectively have more to contribute.

Adopting a merit-based immigration system would be fairer to prospective immigrants and certainly more beneficial to American society.

We must stop viewing immigration as a debt we owe to our immigrant ancestors, but rather as a trust we owe to current and future generations of Americans. When half of the unprecedented number of immigrants living in our country rely on public assistance for their basic needs, we are doing a disservice to Americans who rely on these programs, and those who have to pay for them.

The long-standing laws against the admission of people who are likely to become public charges were adopted for good reason.

In legislation enacted in 1996, Congress asserted that there is “a compelling government interest to enact new rules for eligibility and sponsorship agreements in order to assure that aliens be self-reliant in accordance with national immigration policy.”

The new rules proposed by DHS would carry out this expressed will of Congress and the American people.

Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform(FAIR).

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.