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Trump official’s attempt at humor ends up highlighting American tradition of exploiting poor immigrants
[su_label type=”info”]Centrospective[/su_label]
Illustration: Alexia Huerta
Nestor Castillo

Ken Cuccinelli, the homophobic, former Virginia attorney general, current acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and now (apparently) purveyor of bad poetry, decided to use a recent interview with NPR to drop a not-so-hot remix of Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus.”

In the Cuccinelli remix the wording is changed to: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

The one-liner was in reference to the new federal “public charge” rule allowing immigration officials to deny green cards to those who benefit from the social safety net programs such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid and housing vouchers “for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period.” On top of these changes, the new rule adds specific requirements to the public charge test for income, health, age, and even proficiency in English.

While refugees, asylees, and citizen applicants are not subject to the new regulation (as one has to have been a green card holder for five years prior to applying for citizenship), the chilling effect of this policy could impact as many as 41.1 million immigrants and their family members currently living in the United States, many of whom are children and U.S. citizens. Keep in mind that these 41.1 million, are some of the most vulnerable U.S. residents— families who are 125 percent below the federal poverty line, making roughly $32k a year (for a family of four).

The ruling, which is clearly a continuation of this administration’s mission to brand poor immigrants of color as the enemy, received 266,000 public comments in opposition and well as opposition by pediatricians, hospitals, health insurers, public health officials, and 1,500+ organizations of various kinds.

As we’ve seen in the past, overwhelming opposition isn’t going to stop this administration from moving forward with this policy, so it isn’t a surprise that the National Immigration Law Center has filed a lawsuit to challenge the policy. Locally, Santa Clara and San Francisco counties jointly filed a lawsuit as well.

If this new rule is your first time hearing about “public charge,” you’re not the only one. That’s because public charge isn’t anything new, but it has been obscured through technical-sounding language. Actually, the United States has been attempting to restrict the movement of poor migrants since colonial times. That’s right, that old tale of North America being the salvation to many poor and persecuted European migrants is only half true. The first federal public charge policy came with the Immigration Act of 1882, right on the heels of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It stated, “[any] convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, [shall] not be permitted to land.” This immigration act was revised less than a decade later, allowing for the deportation of those deemed “public charges.” (It also expanded the category of exclusion, for example, denying entrance of migrants who carry contagious diseases.) Turns out, during those early years, the percentage of migrants turned away at major ports of entry for being poor or idiots was quite high, 66 percent of the total excluded.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, California health officials cited figures of immigrants suffering from tuberculosis who were “likely to become a public charge” as a way to argue in favor of Mexican and Filipino repatriation. In the 1990s, reforms passed in health, welfare, and immigration reinvigorated public charge. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act required those sponsoring an immigrant to prove their income was one-fourth more than the federal poverty line.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 gave states the power to deny welfare benefits to most illegal and legal immigrants and enforced sponsorship requirements by including the sponsor’s income and resources when an immigrant applied to federal programs for up to 10 years. All of this happened under the Clinton administration.

So, while the Trump administration is definitely using racism and xenophobia to further attack the social safety that keeps poor people barely afloat, the racialization and criminalization of immigrants is nothing new in American history.

Cuccinelli’s lazy rewrite of the original Lazarus piece, which states “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” inspired me to come up with a new spin on the famous Lady Liberty poem that is more reflective of American history and sentiment towards immigrants. I humbly offer a few edits of my own—

“Do not give me your tired,

Unless they be willing to work for free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

too dark, too poor.

Definitely do not send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the exit sign on the golden door!”

Story by: Nestor Castillo