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An offense to the American spirit: What’s wrong with Trump’s new ‘public charge’ restrictions


(Mark Woodward// New York Daily News)

The Trump administration’s unrelenting war on our values reached a new nadir last week, this time in the form of a rule targeting immigrants.

Since the 19th century, “public charge” laws have permitted the government to exclude a narrow category of immigrants who depend “permanently and primarily” on government resources from residing permanently in the United States. For more than 130 years, the courts, Congress and the Constitution have upheld that standard.

Now, they want to change the criteria for who falls into the “public charge” category. By these new standards, only the wealthiest of immigrants would be eligible for visas and green cards, and all individuals who have ever received any public assistance — however nominal — for any length of time could be denied. That means, starting this October, millions of legal immigrants who use vital government safety-net programs, like Medicaid or food stamps, could be deprived of a pathway to citizenship.

Much has already been written about how cruel this is to people seeking to gain an economic foothold in America. To me, the bigger problem is the frontal assault on our common values this represents.

In defense of the administration’s unlawful expansion of the public charge exclusion, Ken Cuccinelli, President Trump’s acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration System, made a despicable attempt to rewrite the hallowed words at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Cuccinelli asserted that Emma Lazarus’ words written in 1883 — “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — only applied to Europeans and were really meant to be read as “Give me your tired, your poor who can already stand on their own feet.” In doing so, Cuccinelli turned his back on our core values and more than a century of New York and American history.

This is a clear violation of the law, the Administrative Procedure Act, as well as laws against disability discrimination and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. That is why this week, I filed suit, joined by New York City and the states of Connecticut and Vermont, to prevent this rule from being enacted.

Let’s be clear: This is not about cracking down on illegal immigration, which Trump claimed was his goal all along. If this rule moves forward, any and all immigrants attempting to enter or stay in this country legally will be forever denied citizenship for accessing non-cash government programs to which Congress says they are entitled — from food assistance to Section 8 housing assistance to Medicaid. It will also chill participation in these programs, which were designed to help people move out of poverty.

Millions of people in New York could be directly hurt by this rule, including almost 700,000 children, the vast majority of whom are American citizens. And, if enacted the public charge rule will harm all New Yorkers.

One estimate found that the public charge rule could cost New York’s economy as much as $5 billion, including $2.6 billion in federal funds, and more than 30,000 jobs. Health insurance premiums will rise. By the Department of Homeland Security’s own admission, the rule could lead to a “higher prevalence of communicable diseases,” which make no distinction based on national origin.

If the Trump administration has its way, New York children will go hungry, families will go without medical care, homelessness and poverty will increase, and people playing by the rules will have their lives upended.

The fact that this rule will do more harm than good is no surprise. Neither border security nor saving taxpayer dollars are the point. This rule, dressed up in regulatory trappings, is clearly intended to amp up Trump’s tirade against immigrants.

America is a nation of immigrants. Generations have landed here with little more than a dream in their pockets. Their hard work has built the most prosperous, diverse and inclusive democracy in the history of the world. The Trump administration’s efforts to only allow those who meet their narrow ethnic, racial and economic criteria to enter is a clear violation of our laws and our values.

We still believe in the words engraved on Lady Liberty. So no, Mr. Trump and no, Mr. Cuccinelli, you don’t get to rewrite the American story; you don’t get to rewrite our values; and you don’t get to break the law. We’ll see you in court.

James is attorney general of New York.