Give Me Your Rich, Your Comfortable: Trump’s Quiet War on Legal Immigration

Defenders of President Trump’s attacks on undocumented immigrants often frame those attacks in terms of Law and Order. While that debate rages, Trump continues to quietly change the laws in ways that make it even harder for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally.

On September 17, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that in fiscal year 2019 the U.S. would accept no more than 30,000 refugees—down from a cap of 45,000 in FY 2018 and 85,000 in 2016. Actual admissions may be even lower: so far this year the U.S. has admitted fewer than 21,000 people.  This continues a historic retreat from the U.S.’ humanitarian commitment to accept people fleeing from deadly violence or natural disasters in their home countries. And it comes at a time when record numbers of people need refuge.  A record-setting 16.2 million people were displaced in 2017, and the wars and disasters of 2018 suggest that the refugee flow will only increase.

This move dismays even some Republicans. Sen. Susan Collins stated her opposition to the reduction, lamenting that “a cap this low is going to cause so much hardship, pain, and potentially death of people we can be helping.”  Besides this obvious and profound moral objection, there is some concern about how cutting back refugee admissions may decrease the world’s respect for the US and increase resentment.

Pompeo attempted to downplay these concerns by saying that the refugee number shouldn’t be considered in isolation, as the U.S. is also dealing with 800,000 asylum seekers. But, as the New York Times pointed out, the actual number of asylum seekers is only 320,000, with many more undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation without asylum claims—and many of those who seek asylum will be denied and deported to applause from Trump and his supporters. The Trump administration has already narrowed the requirements for asylum, ruling that people fleeing domestic violence and gang violence can’t claim refuge in the U.S.

Trump’s White House also seeks to make it harder for poorer people to immigrate legally in search of a better life.  On September 23 the Administration proposed a new rule denying green cards to legal immigrants who have used public benefits such as Medicaid, Medicare part D, food stamps and public housing. Green cards are already not available to immigrants (except refugees) who will depend on the government for most or all of their needs. The attempt to penalize immigrants who need minor help from the public while getting settled in their new land is much farther-reaching and could dramatically reshape U.S. immigration, making it much harder for people who aren’t already affluent to immigrate.

New policies also threaten the citizenship of naturalized and native-born U.S. citizens born overseas.  In August, the Trump administration began denying passports to hundreds of Latinos near the Mexican border because of a handful of fraudulent birth certificates.  Veterans and others who had spent their lives believing they were native-born citizens—most of whom likely are native-born citizens—suddenly found themselves under suspicion.  In the same month, a USCIS task force began actively seeking evidence of fraud in the naturalization documents of more than 2,500 citizens.

Three rationales are commonly given for these exclusionary policies.  The first, security/crime prevention, doesn’t bear scrutiny. The second, economic necessity, is highly debatable. The third, national culture and values, is emotional rather than logical.

Pompeo attempted to justify refugee restrictions and the ‘enhanced vetting’ which is partly responsible for this year’s very low actual refugee admissions, in the name of national security. “We must continue to responsibly vet applicants to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country,” he said, citing one case in which a refugee was prosecuted for ISIS involvement.  But the facts don’t suggest that refugees in particular, or immigrants in general, pose a danger to our nation. Several studies show (in the Washington Post and The Hill), that the violent crime rate is lower among undocumented immigrants than among native-born citizens and substantially lower among legal immigrants than among undocumented immigrants.  Crime rates in cities with high immigrant populations tend to be lower than in comparably sized cities with few immigrants, and immigration has often been correlated with reduced crime rates over time.  So immigration restriction isn’t going to make us safer.

Economic impact is harder to measure precisely.  Immigration restriction advocates at the Center for Immigration Studies say that households which include immigrants use welfare at higher rates than households whose members are all native-born.  But others point out that their definition of an ‘immigrant household on welfare’ would include a family with one immigrant and one- native-born parent where the native-born children got free lunch at school.  Pro-immigrant advocates at the American Immigration Council counter that “immigrant tax payments total $20 [billion] to $30 billion more than the amount of government services they use,” and point out that immigrants are more likely than native-born citizens to start businesses and thereby create jobs. So restricting immigration isn’t necessarily going to make America prosperous again.

Then there is the argument that immigrants don’t assimilate, that they somehow threaten or dilute ‘our culture’ and ‘our values.’ But what is ‘our’ civilization? What is American culture, if not a rich amalgam of people coming from very different cultures and creating a common life? American food, American music, American literature, American activism, and American politics have all been profoundly shaped by many generations of immigrants from different places.  Sometimes we have found hope and cause for pride in this diversity. In 1944, in the shadow of the Second World War, Swedish historian Gunnar Myrdal wrote in his book An American Dilemma, “When in this crucial time, the international leadership passes to America, the great reason for hope is that this country has a national experience of uniting racial and cultural diversities and a national theory, if not a consistent practice, of freedom and equality for all ...” In the shadow of earlier wars our first President wrote that “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent & respectable Stranger, but the oppressed & persecuted of all Nations & Religions...”  At the moment we seem to be losing sight of this principle.  It is up to the American voters to decide whether or not we will return to it again.

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