It wasn’t that long ago that racism carried decisive political cost for Republicans. Back in 2012, Ken Cuccinelli, then the attorney general of Virginia, did an interview with a conservative show called The Morning Majority and spoke of immigrants in a manner many considered to be a comparison to vermin. “It is worse than our immigration policy,” he said of Washington, D.C.’s pest control standards. “You can’t break up rat families. Or raccoons, and all the rest, and you can’t even kill ‘em.”
The comparison more or less doomed Cuccinelli’s 2013 bid for Virginia governor. Six short years and one trip to the twilight zone later, this man is running the entire nation’s naturalization and immigration system. He clearly feels now that he has a bit more leeway to be himself.
On Tuesday, the acting director of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services took to the airwaves to discuss a new Trump administration rule that proposes to drastically change green card criteria. The rule would institute a “wealth test” for those legal immigrants entering the country on temporary visas to determine which are likely to need nutrition assistance, subsidized housing, or various other government benefits should they qualify for permanent residency. “If they don’t have future prospects of being legal permanent residents without welfare, that will be counted against them,” Cuccinelli told NPR’s Morning Edition on Tuesday morning, adding the administration would welcome “all immigrants who can stand on their own two feet, self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
Cuccinell’s interview might have gone unnoticed had he not decided to mutilate the famous Emma Lazarus poem that sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” Cuccinnelli said on NPR, twisting “The New Colossus” into Trumpist talking points. Later on CNN, he added this bit of ahistorical bigotry when asked what he thinks America stands for: “Well, of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies.” Tempted as I was to mail Cuccinelli a book on African caste systems, I chose not to waste the postage.
The colorful Cuccinelli statements made the most noise, naturally. Folks even stopped talking about the rule itself, which is already being challenged in court. This change in policy threatens to not only cut legal immigration but also to make American citizenship, as a franchise, seem exclusive only to those immigrants who are rich enough to meet the standards of someone as ostentatious as Donald Trump.
However, the real con behind this is that Trump would have us believe that he is trying to guard the very same social safety net that his party has been trying to erode for decades. Reading the rule, it appears his administration grasps a fundamental reality about government programs: they are popular when they benefit the people whom you like.
In a report published in February of last year, HuffPost found most Trump supporters were more likely than Hillary Clinton supporters to overestimate the share of welfare and public housing benefits that go to black recipients. In fact, research has shown that states with larger black populations are less likely to spend on the safety net — and a 2017 study found that white people in the working class were, by far, the biggest beneficiaries of federal poverty-reduction programs.
The “public charge” rule is particularly insidious because its eventual targets may be the same Real Americans whom it ostensibly protects. It uses Lady Liberty as a Trojan Horse, building support within his base of undereducated white voters for the Republican Party’s continued war on the “entitlements” many in Trump’s base rely upon.
It seems evil, because it is. But the modus operandi of the Republican Party has become, out of necessity, one of deception. No majority of American voters would sign up for a platform in which a tiny minority of extraordinarily wealthy white men seek to bleed the nation dry for profit while exempting themselves from paying back into the collective through taxes. But that is what Republicanism is, stripped of all of the ginned-up identity politics that surfaces in so many forms: draconian abortion bans; prohibiting transgender members of the military; Muslim travel bans, and pure, unadulterated racism. The Republican Party has to trick its own voters into worrying about people who pose no real threat to their existence whatsoever, and it’s especially necessary because they seek to erode government programs that primarily benefit the very people they need to win elections.
Addressing this underhanded move against the president’s own voters is not an altruistic effort on my part. Those folks not only consistently vote against their own interests, but against the interests of communities filled with people who look like me, and many do it because of how we look. I hardly expect them to read or to heed the warning that I am issuing here. There are cracks in the stern, certainly; the president is polling far underwater in many states that he won in 2016. But whenever he shows up to rally, a heavily white crowd appears ready to give this supremacist agenda another four years in the White House. At this point, there is no mistaking what you are supporting when you choose to back Donald Trump.
My primary concern remains those who are immediately affected by this rule, and it has already been having a deleterious impact on immigrant communities since it was first proposed in December. An Associated Press analysis found that just the rumor that the “public charge” rule was coming has already caused immigrants to stop seeking federal assistance for fear that it would hurt their chances of getting a green card.
The actual rule now states that prior use of benefits wouldn’t disqualify an applicant, but the lack of education and proficiency in English could hurt them. But the administration was content to scare people into possibly going hungry or homeless before the rule was even published.
Ironically, the same analysis, using census data, found that “low-income immigrants who are not yet citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults. In fact, many immigrants are ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status.”
There was no pressing need for the Trump administration to put this rule in place, which is surely no surprise. But it is easy to see why it remained a priority for true hard-line immigration opponents in the administration, like Cuccinelli and White House advisor Stephen Miller. It’s cruel, and it helps attract votes that keep Trump in power.
To that end, possibly because it combines his talent for entertainment with his predilection for cruelty and intellectual laziness, Trump loves to mollify his mob with culture-war red meat like this “public charge” rule. The belief that he is guarding their government resources may comfort his blue-collar voters even more as more reports about a possible recession surface. The bad indicators keep piling up, many of which we haven’t seen since 2007, right before the Bush-era financial crisis. But increasing panic on Wall Street isn’t enough to trigger this kind of dramatic immigration action, even if economic trauma is the best predictor for presidential election losses.
The “public charge” rule has precedent in 19th-century America, where people of Irish descent were expelled for being “drunkards and barbarians.” Whiteness in America has since expanded to include them, as well as groups like Italians. (Good thing for Cuccinelli; his parents are Italian and Irish.)
The Trump rule suggests that while the president may want every white vote that he can get, the administration wants to narrow that definition of whiteness again. Surely, it survives its court challenges, there is reason to suspect that this administration will turn any “wealth test” into a “white test.” However, even that stands to weed out poorer, undereducated white immigrants. This is only one way that the rule’s unquestionably racist intent and effect promises to also come back to bite white people.
Yet, I expect the support for the rule from Trump’s acolytes to be strong and uncritical, because they are in this for something that you cannot buy. If white people who are broke and destitute are still feeling superior to the brown or black person over there, then their president has done them a service.
They may believe that has made “Americanness” a reserve for them alone, and that may be worth more than all the golden walls in Trump’s apartment. But nearly three years into his presidency, those obsequious white supporters still fail to understand that the president, Cuccinelli, and the administration are rejecting the poorest of them from the kind of “Americanness” he seems now ready to grant to rich immigrants who can pass his test.
Martin asked Cuccinelli on NPR whether the “public change” rule changes the conception of the American Dream. She didn’t really define it when she asked it, and I wished that she had. Perhaps as the descendant of enslaved Africans there is something inherent about this ideal of commercial and capitalist success, attained on our shores by the penniless and hopeful immigrant, that I do not comprehend. I have always been more familiar with the America that Cuccinelli described in his grating response to her: “No one has a right to become an American who isn’t born here as an American.” The one where a powerful white man is sure that he can determine who does and does not belong in this country.
It has always been men like this who have tried to set the terms for who belongs here, at times with their speech and at times with a gun. Just recently, we saw two attempts to do so in public spaces. This won’t be as violent, but it could have tragic consequences.