The ‘Public Charge’ Rule Puts Immigrants in the Crosshairs


The Trump administration’s anti-immigrant “public charge” rule — which denies a green card to immigrants who the government believes are “likely” to receive government benefits — is getting new attention in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. A motion recently filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, along with a provision in the proposed congressional Coronavirus Immigrant Families Protection Act, seek a suspension of this policy. We agree. It is both counterproductive to our communal interests and a moral outrage to enforce such a rule at this time.

The “public charge provision” has been part of U.S. immigration law for more than 100 years and was used by some administrations over the years to exclude from the United States immigrants who are dependent on public assistance. In fact, Herbert Hoover used this provision to keep out Jews who were unable to take their assets along as they fled Nazi Germany.

Before the Trump administration changed the public charge rule in 2018, potential immigrants needed to show that they would not become “primarily dependent” on forms of public assistance. The new rule considerably expanded the scope to block immigrants deemed “likely” to use public assistance, even in the unknowable future. This includes participation in such public benefits as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), low-income housing assistance and Medicaid under most instances.

Not only can this rule disqualify potential immigrants from receiving visas to come to the U.S., it can also prevent immigrants already here legally from progressing to permanent status, allowing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to pursue their removal. Those in the crosshairs: a population of predominantly black and brown, poor and low-income immigrants.

The Workers Circle actively opposed the Trump administration’s rule, which weaponized the public charge language, long before this pandemic hit. From the outset, the rule had a chilling effect on immigrant families in need of assistance, and critics of the policy cautioned it would make our country poorer, hungrier and sicker.

Experts warn the rule could impede our response to Covid-19. As Attorney General James and members of Congress contend, suspending this rule has become an essential response to an emergency.

The rule is forcing people into the shadows. This includes those who struggle to understand the law’s complexity and mistakenly believe it applies to them, those who reside in mixed-status families and all those attuned to the derisive, hateful and scapegoating rhetoric of this administration and those who recognize the true intentions undergirding this policy.

As all Americans of good conscience recognize, immigrants, including those directly targeted by the public charge rule, are essential members of our communities; they are our valued neighbors and friends and beloved by their families. As the pandemic has made starkly clear, many are also “essential workers,” keeping America fed, moving, safe and healthy while braving extraordinary risk.

Even as their neighbors within hard-hit cities like New York literally applaud their heroism every evening come 7 p.m., immigrant workers remain the targets of Trump’s dangerous policies and are callously excluded from the relief packages enacted by Congress.

Most American Jews are not so far removed from their own families’ immigrant origins and should empathize and stand with today’s targeted groups. Having experienced our own historic struggles, we know well that hardship should not be weaponized against those seeking a better life.

The Workers Circle, first founded to provide a social safety net for the Yiddish-speaking forebearers who immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe, celebrates its 120th anniversary this year — a milestone made especially meaningful by the Jewish birthday adage, “may you live to 120.” We vow to carry our Jewish values into the next 120 years and to continue our fight for the dignity and rights of all immigrants.

We call on the wider Jewish community to join with us in speaking out against anti-immigrant policies. The public charge rule cannot stand at this time. Immigrant families must be included in the policies and legislation that provide crucial economic and public health assistance to all those impacted by coronavirus and the larger crisis it has wrought. We are constantly reminded that we must stand together in this pandemic — all of us regardless of immigration status. We call upon our community and our nation’s leaders to craft responses that leave no one behind. n

Ann Toback is CEO of The Workers Circle.