The Trump Administration Proposed a New Financial Test for Immigrants - And It Reflects the Extreme Classism and Racism of the GOP

Applying for immigration to a foreign country can be a cumbersome and bureaucratic process even under the best of circumstances. And thanks to the Trump administration, immigrating to the U.S. could become much more difficult for anyone who lacks a high income. 

Under President Donald Trump, the Department of Homeland Security is considering an immigration plan that would place much more emphasis on applicants’ income and assets as well as the condition of their health. The plan would revive the antiquated “public charge” test, which started with the Immigration Act of 1882.

When the Immigration Act of 1882 was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur—the Republican who had become president after President James A. Garfield’s assassination a year earlier—the term “public charge” was used to describe someone who was likely to need some type of help from the government. And under the Trump administration’s immigration plan, many people would fit the definition of a “public charge.” 

The Immigration Act of 1882 specified what types of types of immigrants were considered undesirable—specifically, “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”

At the time, there was considerable prejudice against Irish-Catholic immigrants. Ireland was much poorer back then, and opponents of Irish-Catholic immigration argued that immigrants arriving from Dublin or Cork were likely to become “public charges.” The Immigration Act of 1882, they hoped, would curtail Irish-Catholic immigration just as the Chinese Exclusion Act (also signed into law by President Arthur that year) would curtail Chinese immigration.   

These days, however, Ireland is much more prosperous than it was in the 19th century—whether it’s the Republic of Ireland in the south or the UK-associated Northern Ireland—and it is immigrants of color that the Trump administration fears could become “public charges.” 

Using the Trump administration’s proposed “public charge” test, a one-person household applying for immigration would need to be earning at least 250% of the current federal poverty guidelines—which would mean $30,350 or more for a one-person household or at least $62,750 for a four-person household. And income isn’t the only thing that could cause an applicant to fail the Trump administration’s “public charge” test, which would also take into account everything from medical history to use of the earned income tax credit (EITC), Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a.k.a. SNAP, or “food stamps”).  

If applicants have some type of medical condition without any form of health insurance, the Trump administration would consider them “public charges.” And anyone who has received SNAP benefits or Medicaid or used the EITC could also fit the definition of a “public charge.” By these standards, many U.S. citizens would fail the test.

According to analysis from the Center for American Progress, roughly one-third of U.S. citizens would fit the Trump administration’s definition of a “public charge.” But that one-third only takes into account one’s current income or employment status. Factoring in corporate downsizing, layoffs, health problems, auto accidents and many other things that can change one’s financial situation in a hurry, a lot more Americans have the potential to become “public charges” at some point.

The Center for American Progress has noted that many U.S. citizens who could pass the “public charge” test today might not be able to pass it tomorrow—and when one includes both “public charges” and all the Americans who are one layoff, corporate downsizing or health emergency away from becoming poorer, around half of the U.S. population fits the Trumpian definition of being a potential deadbeat at some point during a period of several years.

The “public charge” test not only underscores the Trump Administration’s disdain for immigrants of color—it also illustrates just how ingrained classism is in the modern-day Republican Party. When President Barack Obama was seeking reelection in 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney asserted that 47% of Americans were freeloaders who expected government handouts. And that type of mindset—that the wealthy and affluent are the makers while the poor and the middle class are the takers—is very much at work in the Trump administration’s proposed immigration guidelines.

The Trump administration, with its “public charge” test, is not only expressing its deep contempt for many immigrants, but for a big chunk of U.S. citizens as well.

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