‘It’s an attempt to impose a white nationalist vision of what America is’
Janine Jackson interviewed author Sasha Abramsky about Trump’s new attack on immigrants for the August 23, 2019, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: It’s long been obvious, to anyone with a passing acquaintance with white supremacy, that Donald Trump and his ilk’s stance on immigration was never any more about “legality” than it was about all immigrants.
In the face of such an unprincipled and frankly hateful administration, a focus on the law as a bastion against irrationality is perhaps understandable. But that shouldn’t distract us from the devastating effects that come from mere suggestions from those in power, legality notwithstanding. Look at the White House’s push to keep undocumented immigrant children from going to public school. They’ve dropped it for now, but who wonders but that some parents might be afraid to send their kid?
All the more with White House changes, more than suggested, to so-called “public charge” regulations that allow the state to deny visas or consider deportation for immigrants deemed likely to become reliant on government aid.
That people who are legally entitled to food, housing or health benefits will nevertheless lose access to them is a feature, not a bug, of these changes. Are media making that clear? And what about following through on the implications?
Our next guest has been tracking the issue. Sasha Abramsky writes regularly for The Nationas well as his own weekly column, TheAbramskyReport.com. He’s author of several books, most recently Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, from Nation Books. He joins us now by phone. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Sasha Abramsky.
SA: Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.
JJ: We’re learning a lot from the Trump administration, at tremendous cost, about things we thought were laws, that turn out to be policies, or just convention. Would you give us some grounding, first of all, here: What are “public charge” regulations, on paper and then in practice?
SA: On paper, public charge regulationsare this amorphous set of guidelines that go back to the late 19th century. And what they do is they give immigration officers some discretion to say, this person is a cash burden on the state. And therefore, we either aren’t going to let them into the country, we’re not going to give them a visa. Or, in very, very rareinstances, we’re going to say you can’t stay in the country, that your application for permanent residency is denied, because you’re a cash charge.
And this has existed for over 120 years. It was kind of codified in the 1990s; there was congressional legislation, which basically reiterated the guidelines, and explained that being a public charge was about cash benefits.
So the Trump team came in, and they’ve been looking for all kinds of creative ways to crack down on immigration. And they started with the most low-hanging fruit by going after what they called “illegal immigrants” or “aliens,” people who came into the country or overstayed their visas without proper documentation.
And as the presidency has gone on, the attack has broadened. And so what they’re doing now is they’re saying, “If you or your family members use any benefits—not just cash benefits, but you become unemployed and need to file for food stamps, or temporary housing assistance, or you need to go onto Medicaid—that use of noncash benefits could render you deportable.”
And then the other part of that is, what they’re now saying to immigration officers overseas, “When you’re processing visas, if you think this person is likely to be poor, if you think this person is going to come to the country without enough cash to support themselves, and use things like food stamps, you can deny them a visa.” So it gives tremendous discretion to people, basically, to discriminate, to discriminate knowing the government now has your back, if you’re a bureaucrat and you choose to discriminate against poor people or nonwhite people or people from the Global South.
And this is an extraordinary change in immigration policy. What they’re basically doing is rewriting 50-plus years of immigration policy, which has prioritized family unification, which has prioritized a diversity of immigration from different parts of the world. And they’re saying, “No, we’re going to go back to the 1920s vision of quotas, the 1920s vision which prioritizes Northern European migration, white migration, English-speaking migrants and so on.” This is a huge change. It’s all wrapped up under the guise of a bureaucratic tweak.
JJ: If I can just take you back for one second, the previous interpretation of that public charge regulation, there were societal reasons for not trying to draw lines in this way, that had to do with public health, for instance.
SA: Yeah, I mean, look, you mentioned earlier about the administration floating these nebulous ideas about denying public schooling to children of undocumented immigrants. Even if you forget about the morality of that, who wants a society with an underclass of millions of children who lack even rudimentary education? It makes no sense.
And coming back to “public charge,” the same thing holds. Even if you forget about the morality of denying healthcare to families—and you shouldn’t forget the morality—but even if you think about it purely in terms of pragmatics, who wants millions of people afraid to get vaccinations? Who wants millions of people afraid to go to the doctor or to the hospital if they have a contagious disease?
And so, when you look at this, and you look at the responses, there were 266,000 public comments filed, almost all of them in opposition to this rule change. And large numbers of those comments came from doctors, they came from teachers, they came from nutritional specialists, they came from mental health experts—all of them saying that if you entirely remove the ability of immigrants to access things like food stamps, you’re going to create a public health catastrophe at the back end of this.
And I think that’s what this government is now playing with, in the interest of pushing these sort of red meat policies to its base, it’s doing things that are extraordinarily detrimental to the public good.
JJ: I noticed one piece in Vice that pointed out that a rule that bars entry or considers deportation to those who might rely on government assistance is a big old “screw you” to people with disabilities. It used to be that immigrants using Medicaid were only deemed a public charge if it was for institutional long-term care; now they want to extendit to things like community living and in-home support.
And that Vice piece noted that to establish their precedent for this expansion of these rules, the Trump administration cited eugenics-era cases, where people were being denied entry for speech impediments, or for “poor appearance.” It really resonated with something that you wrote about creating a “caste of untouchables.”
And they shouldn’t be seen in isolation. This is a web of policies—from public charge, to exclusion from public housing, to the attacks on people with Temporary Protected Status, to the attempts to lock out asylum-seekers and refugees, to this latest idea that they’re going to indefinitely detain in concentration camps families of immigrants—all of this is part of this notion of locking down America, and redefining who is American.
And there’s no way you can understand it without understanding it as a racial project. It’s a racial project, like apartheid South Africa, which is designed to narrow the definition of Americanness to a certain category of people who fit a racial and an economic profile that Donald J. Trump is comfortable with, or Stephen Miller is comfortable with, or Stephen Bannon is comfortable with.
And when we are trying to understand this, it makes no sense to parse it and say, “Well, let’s look at this piece of legislation, and think of it in isolation from everything else.” You have to look at this as a political project in its entirety.
And it’s a political project we haven’t seen in this country for more than half a century. It’s an attempt to impose a white nationalist vision of what America is, on the most diverse, most pluralistic society, certainly on Earth today, but arguably, in human history. It’s an insane political project.
JJ: All of which is why I’m so dismayed to see, for example, I’m reading a piece from NBC, it’s by no means supportive of the White House, but it still includes the obligatory indulgence: “The Trump administration argues that expanding the meaning of ‘public charge’ helps ‘protect American taxpayers’ and ensures ‘that non-citizens in this country are self-sufficient,’” blah, blah, blah. I very much appreciate in your work the recognition that it’s just not appropriate to talk about this in a context of budgets. Cuccinelli has admitted they didn’t even try to estimate any supposed savings…
SA: It makes no sense, because all of the budget analyses that are being done by objective, impartial observers say that this will cost money, that you will end up with more expensive public health emergencies, you will end up with nutritional crises amongst low-income immigrants, and so on. All of this is about imposing an agenda and an ideology, rather than a pragmatic response to fiscal constraints.
And you can see this in the latest: Trump returned yesterday to an idea he’s been floating for the last four years, this idea of somehow using an executive order to override the 14th Amendment that guarantees birthright citizenship. And he said, it’s absolutely absurd that they can come in—and he uses this sort of horrible language, they, these immigrants can come in—and have a child and for 85 years, he said, that child will then be a financial burden on the state.
Now, this is completely absurd. The children of immigrants assimilate, the children of immigrants tend to get educated, they tend to start businesses, they tend to buy houses, they tend to do all the things that other Americans do. This notion that someone comes in and they will be a burden on America for 85 years, only makes sense to somebody who thinks that all nonwhite people are definitionally a burden on America.
And day in, day out, you hear this hateful rhetoric coming from the president, and then day in, day out, you have this attempt to rationalize it, and just sort of say, “Well, this is part of the normal political back and forth.” There’s nothing normal about this. Let’s be absolutely clear here: This is a supremacist agenda that has captured one of the two major political parties in the United States. It’s an extraordinary, existential threat to who we are as a country.
JJ: And so when you see media stories, and I’m looking through all this coverage, and I see, you know, “The Trump White House is doing this,” and then they’ll say, “Critics say these changes will have this impact,” or they’ll say, “In actual fact, immigrants don’t cost that much to taxpayers.” But it still is kind of a two-sided issue, and I don’t feel that journalists have made the transition to covering this appropriately. It still sounds kind of like, “Hey, you know, pro-death squads, anti-death squads.”
SA: I think that’s right, because there’s so much irrationalism coming out of the Trump administration, or so much—if it is rationalism, it’s of such a cruel, sadistic nature, that it makes it very hard for a cadre of journalists who have grown up thinking of this country as a functioning, viable, tolerant democracy—it makes it very hard for those journalists to know how to deal with this.
JJ: Well, the changes in the public charge were forecast. You were writing about them last year. People—not just organizations, but cities and states—have been preparing to some extent for them. What do we see in terms of resistance or pushback to these changes in the public charge regulations?
SA: Yeah, there was no mystery to any of this. This has been telegraphed for well over a year, and people have been writing about it and strategizing about it and preparing lawsuits on it for over a year. So the first lawsuit was actually filed by Baltimore in 2018. And that lawsuit is still sitting there, waiting to move. But they got a whiff of what was happening, decided it was going to impact their immigrant populations and their local economies negatively, and they sued.
Since the actual rules themselves have been rolled out in the last couple of weeks, you’ve seen this rash of lawsuits. So you’ve got individual cities like San Francisco suing, you’ve got this huge coalition of 13 states that have sued, and then independently of that coalition, California sued, and then New York has sued. And then a whole bunch of immigrant rights groups, such as the National Immigration Law Center, have also filed suit. So there’s somewhere in the region of nine or ten lawsuits proceeding at this point.
And there’s probably a pretty good chance that at least one court, somewhere in the country, will issue an injunction saying, “Look, you can’t do this, because it’s going to result in irreparable harm to immigrants, to their families, to their communities, to local economies, and so on.” And this is where—not just on public charge, but on a whole rash of things, the ending of the Flores settlement yesterday, and the idea of detaining families definitely, the idea of kicking mixed-status families out of public housing and Section 8 housing, the idea of ending Temporary Protected Status, the idea of locking up asylum seekers south of the border—all of this is being litigated by the ACLU, by state attorney generals and so on. And so where the immediate fightback is, is in the courts.
Secondarily, there are these political fightbacks. So there’s a bill in the House, in Congress, that would defund implementation of public charge. Now that bill is not going to go anywhere, because even if it passes the House, it won’t pass the Senate, and even if it passes the Senate, Trump will veto it. But at the very least, what it does is, it puts down a political red line; it says, “Look, you can’t do this, if you do this, you’re gonna have a huge problem getting anything passed, anything done, in Congress.” So that’s the second tier.
But then the third tier, maybe the most important one, is mass resistance. That we’re now at a point where so much harm is being done to so many of our friends, our families, our neighbors, our communities, by this anti-immigrant-on-steroids agenda, the incredibly turbocharged nationalist agenda that is going to finish out the first Trump term, or hopefully the only Trump term–
the damage is now so immense that it’s on all of us, morally, to find ways to not cooperate with this. And it’s on anybody who works for these government agencies to not cooperate, because they’re now being asked to do things, in their official capacity, that will cause immense and permanent physical and psychological damage, in particular, to children. And it’s on everybody who’s being asked to implement this to have that conversation, with themselves and with their families and with their loved ones, as to whether or not they can, in good conscience, cooperate with laws that are clearly in violation of human rights norms. And I think that’s probably where we’re going to move towards over the coming months and years, is how do we, as a people, resist fundamentally unjust and immoral laws?
JJ: I want to bring it back, just finally, on a much smaller note. In the midst of a depressing story online, I saw one of those links to another piece, and it was headlined, “People Make Quiznos a Hub for Migrants.” And the story was just that, how San Antonio had converted a fast food place into a kind of travel agency, community center and daycare combined, for migrants who are being dropped off there. And it was just a little thing, but it was there that I saw journalists doing something worthwhile, which was showing ordinary, imperfect people who were working in community on solutions to problems, instead of just some thought-deadening yakety-yak between elitist talking heads who were talking about how we can never solve these problems. There is room for reporters on the right side of this, I think.
SA: There is, and there’s also tremendous community activism going on on this. And what I was saying about resistance: I was in Arizona before the summer, reporting on these faith groups that were coming out en masse to help immigrant families who had been in these really awful ICE and CBP detention facilities for weeks on end. And the kids were coming out really ill, and they were malnourished, and they hadn’t had showers in weeks. And these community groups were coming out to feed them, to provide them temporary housing before they went over to their sponsor families. There were volunteer doctors. There were volunteer nurses. There were people cooking meals. There were students who’d come out to help arrange transport for these men, women and children, to get them to the sponsor city’s destination.
And all of that I found both inspiring, but also it gave me hope. It gave me hope that there are a tremendous number of people in this country who are looking at what’s happening and saying, “Not in our name,” that we’re not going to sit on the sidelines at this moment of moral truth, but we’re going to get involved, and we’re going to tell these stories, and we’re going to do what we can to keep America a pluralist, tolerant, open society.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Sasha Abramsky. He’s a regular writer for The Nation and author of numerous books, including Breadline USA, The American Way of Poverty and, most recently, Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream. You can find out about his new weekly, subscription-based political column, The Abramsky Report, at TheAbramskyReport.com. Sasha Abramsky, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SA: Thank you.