Trump administration’s policy war on immigration

It has set out to make it harder for people to come to the U.S., stay there and become citizens

September 07, 2019 09:30 pm | Updated 09:30 pm IST - Washington

A Mexican immigrant embracing her son at a town hall-style event held to reassure the nervous local immigrant community in August in Stamford, Connecticut, U.S.

A Mexican immigrant embracing her son at a town hall-style event held to reassure the nervous local immigrant community in August in Stamford, Connecticut, U.S.

August was a notable month in the annals of U.S. immigration. Several rules were pushed through by an administration that has explicitly and implicitly made no bones about the fact that it is making it harder to come to America, stay in America and become American. This applies to both legal and illegal immigration.

The first of these August policy tweaks was aimed at legal immigrants and involved changes to the “public charge” rule. If an individual is seeking admission to the U.S., or looking to change his immigration status and get a green card, he can be deemed inadmissible (or ineligible) as per the law if “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, [the person] is likely at any time to become a public charge”.

The law has its roots in racist policies from the 1840s and 1850s used to deport and exclude immigrants of various kinds — Irish Catholics, Southern and Eastern Europeans, for instance. In 1882, it was put into the statute books — the same year the U.S. Congress also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese immigration into the country.

The Trump administration’s changes, which will go into effect on October 15, will make it easier to designate potential immigrants as being at risk of depending on state funds and consequently making it easier to deny them green cards.

This is being done in several ways, for instance, by increasing the list of benefits that could designate a potential immigrant as likely to become a public charge. Factors that would weigh against the potential immigrant include not having an annual income of at least 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (earlier, it would have normally sufficed for the financial sponsor of a potential immigrant to meet certain income criteria), medical conditions, being old and having poor English language skills.

The net effect of this rule is to pressure would-be immigrants to get off benefits they are legally entitled to and also to foster a system that favours wealthier, better-educated, younger immigrants who have better English speaking skills.

Policy tweak

Another rule change in August will make it harder for children born to naturalised U.S. citizens serving in U.S. Embassies or stationed on U.S. military bases abroad to acquire citizenship at birth. While this latter rule is unlikely to impact a large number of children, the policy tweak is bang on target with the overall message of the administration with regard to immigration.

Finally, towards the end of August, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) sent out letters saying that it would no longer handle the “deferred action” programme for non-military cases. The programme enables individuals, many of whom came to the U.S. legally but stayed on after their visas expired, to put off potential deportation.

This has included those in the U.S. for the treatment of grave illnesses and life-threatening medical conditions. The USCIS letters said that another agency — the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — would handle the programme. No public announcement was made.

A New York Times report told the story of 24-year-old Maria Isabel Bueso, who has been in the U.S. since she was seven to participate in a clinical trial for a genetic condition that doctors said would not let her live through adolescence. The woman was among those were told to leave the country within 33 days or face possible deportation proceedings. In Ms. Bueso’s case, fending off deportation could mean the difference between life and death. USCIS said it had received 1,000 deferred action applications related to medical conditions, as per the Times . There could very well be other Buesos out there.

Perhaps in response to the bad press it has received, the USCIS, on September 2, released a statement, saying it would deal with all deferred action applications that were pending on August 7. It appears that September is already proving to be busy for the agency and it has only just begun.

In a much talked-about interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin on the public charge rule, acting USCIS Director Kenneth Cuccinelli was asked if the words etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, your poor…’ were still what the American ethos was about. His response was: “They certainly are — give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

Sriram Lakshman is The Hindu’s Washington correspondent

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