It must hurt when someone who was a victim of South African apartheid turns to you and tells you, “Go back where you came from!”
Or when you and your four children and your pregnant wife end up in an Indonesian prison for want of enough money to pay a bogus fine that is only being charged because you’re not from around there.
Or when you dodge the Malaysian police every day running between your three jobs that they don’t want you to have, all so you don’t have to go back to the military slave labor camp across the border.
It will also hurt when the United States tells you that you are welcome to stay here and work at a low-wage job during a labor shortage – if you don’t have the audacity to struggle making ends meet or get sick enough to need health insurance for yourself or regular well-child care for your kids. My guess is you will feel like Harry Potter living in the Dursley’s cupboard.
As you can probably tell, I know lots of immigrants, and many of them came to America from lots of places that we are accustomed to regard as less open, less progressive, less welcoming societies than ours. Before that they were in places that lacked running water, any form of healthcare, or any fuel other than firewood and dried animal waste. They know how to work and work hard.
What they did not have to deal with back home was the outrageous cost of living in the West. Our housing, our healthcare, our transportation, and our food are expensive – ask any American-born person living on a fixed income or on their earnings from a low-wage job. I went to medical school with people who needed to rely on TANF, Medicaid and other government programs to make ends meet; I care for people with college degrees who are working overtime and still need those programs to avoid drowning.
For the immigrant families I work with, two incomes are barely enough, let alone the single income if they have small children and a parent is home with the baby. A few weeks ago, one man laid it out for me very starkly – exactly how much he was paying for rent, his car, his utilities, and his groceries. There was no margin for error, despite him working overtime. Add private-pay health insurance, or being uninsured and paying for care out of pocket, and he’d be homeless, or car-less (and therefore jobless).
Which is why the proposed new Public Charge rule, announced by the Department of Homeland Security, hurts so much. “Public charge” is an old term for “burden on society” which was the main reason for rejecting many immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries because the government would need to support them. Raise your hand if someone in your family snuck into America by dodging the public charge rules in the old days – if you’re not raising your hand, you don’t know the whole story.
Now raise your hand if you know anyone personally (not a story you heard on Facebook) who came to the US to take advantage of our generous social safety net? Not many hands, huh? What’s that? Everyone you know came here because they were looking for freedom and opportunity? That’s what I thought.
The new rule says that a legal immigrant seeking a green card who participates in any of a list of government assistance programs, not just cash relief or institutionalization as was previously the case, may be considered a public charge and thereby denied a green card, or even entry into the US.
Not only will hard-working, legal immigrants (not “aliens” – they are human beings from other countries, not Martians, for crying out loud) have to choose between a green card to permit them to stay in America and being able to take their kids to the doctor, get vaccines which will protect that child and their classmates from infection, and put enough food on the table not to starve, but many people not covered by this new rule will avoid, like refugees and asylees, will avoid using benefits they are allowed to use out of fear.
Don’t believe me? Ask some of the traumatized refugees I know, who are convinced they will be sent back to their camps in Nepal, Congo, or other parts of the world because they are disabled. Or look at what happened in the 1990s when there was confusion over what constituted a public charge, until the law was finally clarified in 1999 to exempt non-cash programs like Medicaid and CHIP. Millions of people went without health insurance, and therefore without care, to protect their green cards.
What happened when they got sick – or injured at the job their green card enabled them to get? Either they carried on without care, unable to work productively or potentially with treatable infectious illnesses or, when it got bad enough, you guessed it – they went to the ER. Who paid for it? The same taxpayers who were supposed to be avoiding the “burden” of a “public charge.”
3800 years ago there was an immigrant whose home country didn’t like him very much because he had radical ideas and broke some sacred objects in his father’s store (well, rumor has it, anyway). So, on the advice of a very powerful friend, Abram got out of Dodge (actually Haran) and went west. And what did God tell him?
“I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you, and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
How we treat immigrants, hard-working, bright, creative immigrants like Abraham, says a lot about who we are as a society. We bring blessing on ourselves by having them here – unless we’re 100% Native American, we are only here because immigrants came here. Abraham is good people to have around. He cares about his neighbors, looks out for the little guy, even argues on behalf of the folks down the road in Sodom who probably don’t deserve it. Invest in him now, earn your blessing, and wait until you see what his kids and grand-kids become.
Like a different man I know. Discouraged and penniless when he arrived in the US, government aid was the bridge to him becoming a valued employee, a small-business owner generating jobs for others (nearly half of small businesses in some parts of the country are immigrant owned!), and a homeowner paying property taxes. It was a hand up, not a hand out, as the saying goes.
He’ll remember how you treated him; just ask Sergei Brin, who is responsible for you being able to find this blog using Google, how he feels about the people of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) who helped his family come to America (and believe me, HIAS could not do what it does without lots of government assistance).
Abraham also is an exemplar of how to treat strangers. Leave your tent flaps open in all directions so you can see people coming and invite them in. Even when you’re not at your best, you still have something to offer. And offer them the best you can share. Those folks in Sodom he was arguing with God about? Don’t even ask me to describe what they did to strangers who came to town.
Who would you rather emulate?
That’s what I thought. Well, you’re in luck: the rule is still up for public comment. Click here to state your preference for America to be like Abraham, and not like Sodom. Be sure to make your comment unique – DHS will only look at comments that are not cut-and-paste. Help them see the stranger, the “alien,” as a friend and neighbor.