When Emma Lazarus wrote her iconic poem “The New Colossus” in the 19th century, no public welfare system existed in the United States to help needy immigrants. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” she wrote, with no expectation that the tired, poor, huddled masses would get a handout from the government.
Instead, immigrants received support from their friends, neighbors, fellow church members, and ethnic groups. Lazarus, who was Jewish, volunteered for the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and helped establish a technical school for needy Jews who immigrated to the United States from Russia. Though the country did not want immigrants to become “public charges” dependent on the government, the United States did not expect them to be financially independent, either.
A week ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security posted a revision to the public charge rule. Previous law said the government can deny entry or legal permanent residency to anyone likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” The new rule includes a list of programs that can disqualify someone from permanent residency—such as Medicaid or food stamps—and creates factors that could heavily weigh the decision for or against them.
The U.S. government would use employment history, previous tax returns, and education level, among other things, to decide whether someone met the requirement not to become a public charge. If individuals have relied on public benefits that just became off-limits, getting their green card could be out of reach. New York state, New York City, Connecticut, and Vermont sued the Trump administration on Tuesday to block the changes from taking effect.
In an interview with NPR about the public charge rule, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was asked whether Lazarus’ poem, part of which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, was part of the American ethos. “They certainly are, he said, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
The statement fits with the Trump administration’s strategy of focusing the U.S. immigration system on attracting skilled workers instead of keeping families together. “We want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient,” Cuccinelli said a few days before the rule was posted. “That’s a core principle of the American dream. It’s deeply embedded in our history, and particularly our history related to legal immigration.”
Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization at World Relief, told me the concepts in Lazarus’ poem are “central to the idea of the American dream. … For Christians, that ideal is rooted in our view of humanity as made in the image of a Creator God who has placed into each person the potential to create and to contribute.”
Last week’s rule is consistent with immigration reform legislation passed in 1996, Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, told me. “The regulations that were implemented by the Clinton administration were probably not as true to Congress’ intent in the ’96 act as the Trump administration regulations,” he said.
The United States uses a sponsorship system: To enter the country, immigrants must have someone committed to pay back the government for any cash benefits they consume. The Trump administration announced its intent to enforce that rule in May, but Arthur said he did not know of any cases of it happening. Sponsors repaying the government does not come up that often, he said.
Soerens pointed out that the new rule will not save taxpayers much money. Studies have shown immigrants already do not use public benefits at a high rate. “The debate right now is not really between the fully open immigration implied by Lazarus’ poem or fully closed immigration, but on where to draw the line: who is excluded and on what basis?” Soerens said.