Why the Trump administration is going after low-income immigrants, explained by an expert

The Trump administration’s efforts to discourage undocumented immigration have gotten more attention, but Stephen Miller and company have also worked to restrict legal immigration. And on Monday, officials announced one of their boldest moves yet toward that end.

The Trump administration is implementing a new rule changing green card criteria to more closely examine immigrants’ financial resources. It would make it more difficult for immigrants who came to the country legally to stay as permanent residents if they’ve used or are seen as likely to use public benefits like food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, or Medicaid.

“This final rule amends DHS regulations by prescribing how DHS will determine whether an alien applying for admission or adjustment of status is inadmissible to the United States,” the final text of the rule says, “because he or she is likely at any time to become a public charge.”

The new “public charge” rule — set to go into effect October 15 — not only makes it harder for low-income immigrants to come to the country but could mean those who are already here have to choose between forgoing services they need and being forced to leave.

And, as Dara Lind explained for Vox in December after the administration published a draft version of the rule, it’s already had a chilling effect of driving immigrants away from public services that they’re legally entitled to, for fear it could jeopardize their immigration status.

During a news conference announcing the change on Monday, acting Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli characterized it as part of a broader effort to foster more “self-reliance.”

“Through the public charge rule, President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America,” Cuccinelli said.

But once he finished reading his prepared statement, he couldn’t explain the disconnect between the Statue of Liberty’s “give me your tired, your poor” slogan and a new policy set to keep those very same immigrants out of the country. Nor did he have a satisfactory answer when pressed by a reporter about why critics aren’t justified in concluding that the policy is meant to target Latinos.

Following Cuccinelli’s news conference, Vox spoke with Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the main organization dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants in the US. Hincapié dismissed Cuccinelli’s stated rationale as “spin” meant to obfuscate from what she sees as a reality in Trump’s America that “if you are brown and you are an immigrant, you are not welcome here.”

Hincapié detailed legal steps her organization is taking in a last-ditch effort to block the new rule, which she noted comes at a particularly sensitive time for the immigrant communities following the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, and deportation raids in Mississippi. Our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Rupar

What, put simply, is the difference between the new rule and existing policy? How does this new “public charge” rule specifically target immigrants and communities of color?

Marielena Hincapié

First of all, the public charge rule has been on the books since the 1880s. Not surprisingly, it was actually added around the same time as the Chinese Exclusion Act. And for the last decade, it has actually been implemented in a very narrow way, which is namely that if you’re an immigrant who is primarily dependent on two federal public benefits for your source of income — that is SSI [supplemental security income] or long-term institutional care — you could be considered a public charge and denied a green card.

Today what the administration has done is radically expand the definition of “public charge” so that the use of a broader range of benefits — including things like nutrition assistance, public housing, a number of things including health care — could be used against individuals, even if it isn’t their primary source of income, to deny them the ability to stay in the United States permanently at the time they apply for the green card.

So the most immediate impact has been a humanitarian impact, in that there’s a chilling effect. The estimates from researchers is that about 26 million people would be impacted by this new rule, which we believe is a racially motivated rule to change the face of who we are as a nation.

Aaron Rupar

What day-to-day impact will this have on immigrant communities?

Marielena Hincapié

The first impact I would say is fear. This is part and parcel of the overall agenda of the administration as part of its fearmongering, particularly when it comes at a time following the attacks on Latinos and immigrants in El Paso, at a time exactly a week after the massive workplace raid in Mississippi.

This is part of the continued drumbeat from this administration that if you are brown and you are an immigrant, you are not welcome here, and this now codifies that. This basically says we only want white, wealthy people to come to this country, or even to remain in this country.

The other impact of course is actually on families’ overall well-being and health. We have already seen families who are forgoing necessary treatment like chemotherapy, preventive care, reproductive care — any kind of care — nutritional assistance for newborns. Many families who are deciding to dis-enroll in a whole range of programs because they are afraid they are being made to choose between taking care of themselves and their families or eventually being permanently separated from their families if, at the time they apply for their green card, they are denied because they are deemed to be a “public charge.”

The other thing that I would say is not an immediate impact but part of a long-term impact of this rule is that we actually see it is an attack on our democracy. What the administration is doing on one hand is putting a rule in place that would eventually prevent millions of immigrants who would become permanent residents and eventually citizens and eventually voters, so it’s another way they are trying to disenfranchise communities of colors.

Aaron Rupar

Acting USCIS Director Cuccinelli said today that the new rule is about making sure immigrants can be “self-sufficient.” What did you think about the rationale he presented?

Marielena Hincapié

I would say that I found his press conference overall to be deeply offensive as a Latina and as an immigrant. As someone who is the youngest of 10 children, we came to this country in the 1970s where we did actually have to use government programs, such as food stamps, when my parents were being laid off in between factory jobs.

Part of the American story is we talk about countless examples in people’s history, people’s family history, when someone came from the old country — whether that was England, whether that was Germany, whether that was Ireland or Italy — and they had nothing except a dollar in their pocket, and then they went on and eventually worked hard and made it and were able to achieve the American dream.

The fact is the majority of Americans at some point in their life use one of these different anti-poverty programs. They have been successful for that very reason: They are anti-poverty, they help people make ends meet during difficult times so that they can eventually thrive in this country. That’s part of the story we tell ourselves about this nation.

And so this is not about self-sufficiency at all. This is spin from Cuccinelli and this administration. What this is really about is, again, changing the face of America, ensuring that if you are brown, if you are black, if you are an immigrant, you are no longer welcome here. That’s the message they are sending with this, which is not just a narrative attack but is already having dire human consequences on families and community well-being.

Aaron Rupar

The new rule is scheduled to go into effect in mid-October. What does the legal fight look like from here? What would have to happen for it to now ultimately not be implemented?

Marielena Hincapié

We at the National Immigration Law Center and co-counsel will be filing litigation shortly to be able to seek a preliminary injunction asking the courts to block the administration from implementing this. It’s the same thing we did on DACA and have been successful in blocking the termination of that program and so many other lawsuits that have been filed against this administration.

As you mentioned, the rule doesn’t take effect until October 15, but we’ve already seen the impact and the chilling effect taking root in our communities over the past year when this was just a proposal. So now that’s it’s final, we are launching a monumental outreach and education campaign with health providers, education providers, legal services, media in lots of different languages to try and get information out to communities, so that they know that although this is now a final rule, it does not actually take effect until October 15 — and even then to stay informed, because hopefully we will be able to block this in the courts.

Aaron Rupar

Trump said last Friday that deportation raids at Mississippi food processing plants that left children separated from their parents were “a very good deterrent.” Do you view this new rule as an extension of Trump’s “deterrent” efforts?

Marielena Hincapié

Absolutely. This is part of the administration’s overall way of governance, which is fear, cruelty, and chaos. And trying to push a deterrent strategy which — look, at the end of the day, people who are seeking safety in our country, like people from the Northern Triangle in Central America, are not going to be deterred by that when they’re trying to make a decision that’s a matter of life or death.

People at the Mississippi plant — these are individual workers who have been helping those companies make a profit and helping sustain their families and their local communities, and paying taxes, some of whom have been working in really horrendous conditions. And you have US children who have now been psychologically traumatized by being abandoned and losing one or both of their parents to this raid, which was felt as an act of terror in those communities.

And so this is part of that same overarching agenda from this administration. But the public charge rule is particularly pernicious because it’s not about people who are coming in the future who would be deterred. This is about the millions of immigrants who are here lawfully, who are eligible for these programs under current law but the rules are being changed in the middle of all this, and who may be subjected to family separation unless they stop using these benefits now so that they won’t be impacted by this rule in the future.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.