How can we reduce the number of abortions in the United States? One way is to make sure that women are confident they’ll have medical coverage throughout their pregnancies and after.
And how can we encourage people to work? By making work pay, which is why Republicans and Democrats have supported the Earned Income Tax Credit, known as the EITC, which tops off the pay of low-income employees. Similarly, food stamps help low-income working families give their children the nutrition they need.
These policies, in other words, are pro-life, pro-work and pro-family.
But the Trump administration is pondering a regulation that people in all these camps should find appalling. Naturally, given President Trump’s intense hostility toward the foreign-born, this bureaucratic maneuver is directed against immigrants – and not, mind you, those who came to the U.S. illegally. It hits immigrants who are in full compliance with our statutes.
What the Trumpians have in mind is a radical change in the interpretation of who is defined as a “public charge” in our immigration law.
An 1882 act excluded any immigrant “unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In 1891, Congress called for deporting “any alien who becomes a public charge within one year after his arrival in the United States from causes existing prior to his landing therein.”
Until now, administrations of both parties read the language in ways that ought to seem reasonable to all sides of the immigration debate.
Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained in a paper released on Tuesday that the factors used in determining whether an immigrant is a “public charge” include “whether the individual is dependent for over half of his or her income on cash assistance (i.e., on aid under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Supplemental Security Income program for the aged and disabled poor, or state or local General Assistance) or is receiving long-term care through Medicaid.” The emphasis is Greenstein’s.
But as his paper explained, the proposal under consideration would “jeopardize the immigration status of substantial numbers of legal immigrants” by vastly expanding the list of benefits that could make them “public charges.” It would now include the EITC, the low-income component of the Child Tax Credit, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, health insurance subsidies, the Women, Infants and Children program, or food stamps.
Note that, according to the Urban Institute, 91 percent of the children of immigrants are U.S. citizens. But immigrant parents might be reluctant to access benefits they’re entitled to because doing so could put their own status here in danger.
In fact, the mere leaking of these potential revisions has already had this chilling effect. As Emily Baumgaertner reported in The New York Times in March: “Immigrants hoping for permanent residence are dropping out of public nutrition programs even before prominent elements of the Trump administration’s proposed policy changes are enacted, fearful that participating could threaten their citizenship eligibility or put them at risk for deportation.”
Oh, and by the way, the only tax breaks the rule targets are those that send checks to our poorest immigrant families.
“It’s about so much more than immigration,” said Ashley Feasley, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “What this could do to families affects their health and well-being and it really should be seen as a life issue.”
Here is my plea to pro-life Republicans: Politics aside, you oppose abortion because you are inspired by your moral commitments. Can you please call your White House friends -- do it quietly if that’s easier -- and tell them that going down this path would be an embarrassment to the cause you uphold? Withdrawing support for mothers could create new incentives for abortion.
And to the many of you who are vocal Christians, do you want to tell the citizen-children of immigrants that political posturing to appease nativist sentiments in your party is more important than their getting decent meals or health care? There is nothing in scripture that tells us: Blessed are the mean-spirited.
One could extend this conversation to other groups and issues. But the draft of this particular rule is so outlandishly and unjustly punitive toward newcomers trying to do right -- by their families and our laws -- that it ought to draw us away, at least momentarily, from our usual political battle stations.
Unless, of course, political posturing is the only thing that matters now. In which case: God have mercy on us.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.