In 1882, with the United States convulsed by anti-immigrant sentiment, Congress passed a law that allowed permanent residency to be denied to people likely to become taxpayer burdens. That law, based on whether an immigrant would likely become “primarily dependent” on cash benefits or undergo long-term hospitalization, was not unfair. Hardly anybody supports the immigration of people who won’t contribute and will cost the nation a fortune.
President Donald Trump has made these rules harsher, so much so that many immigrants working at grindingly hard labor could lose their shot at a green card. This week, the Supreme Court ruled that the changes could go into effect while cases challenging Trump’s plan work their way through the legal system.
But while the court battles will continue, it’s clear that this plan is too unkind for a nation that has usually opened its arms to poor people willing to work hard to start a new life. It is also poor policy for a nation whose thirst for immigrants willing to do the toughest jobs is enormous.
The new standards have been tightened so that any immigrant who gets or is likely to get just about any government benefit for any 12 months of a 36-month period would not be eligible for permanent residency. Programs that count include housing subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid. A month in which an immigrant got multiple benefits would count as multiple months.
It sounds reasonable: The argument that we should not give benefits to legal immigrants while we have huge deficits and deep needs among our own citizens is compelling.
But in the United States an unskilled worker with a family can be toiling heartbreakingly long hours and still qualify for benefits. If they need the help and don’t seek it because they want a green card so badly, the cost in human misery will be awful.
The hourly minimum wage on Long Island is $13. That’s all many farmworkers and landscapers and restaurant employees and day laborers and child care and home health-care workers new to the country can command. An employee who earns that wage working 40 hours a week at one job and 20 hours a week at a second, and whose spouse is at home taking care of three kids, qualifies for Medicaid.
Even with no vacations, that hard worker would only gross $40,560. The Medicaid earning limit for a family of five in New York is $40,600. And for food stamps, the limit for a family of five is just $35,228, so if this worker gets laid off for more than a few weeks or loses that second job, he or she qualifies for that, too.
Immigrants should have those needed benefits as they perform these needed tasks, if they qualify. Their kids should be fed and get medical care and be able to stay in the United States.
I don’t know if any of the seven of my eight great-grandparents who immigrated to this country ever took a public benefit when hard times hit. “That time we went on the dole” just isn’t the kind of story families pass down. But I know they did not come here seeking welfare. They came here to build a life, and help build a nation.
That’s true of today’s immigrants, too, and if they need a little help because the hard work they do in this nation pays so little, taking that help while following the rules of our benefit programs shouldn’t disqualify them from staying.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.