Trump's big metaphorical wall
The midterm elections are quickly approaching, and the Trump administration is busily constructing policy levees in hopes to stave off a blue wave. With seemingly no time for nuance, they're hitting the big selling points of why Trump voters love the president, like his promise to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. But since we're almost two years into the Trump presidency and the wall still hasn't been built (and probably never will be), the administration is proposing new obstacles to limit immigration and excite their base.
Up first: keeping out the tired, poor, huddled masses. Although Republicans claim to favor immigration as long as it's legal, the White House has chosen to introduce new hurdles to it — based on wealth. A new rule proposed by the administration would make it more difficult for poorer immigrants to come to the U.S. legally and also penalize immigrants who use public assistance programs. If the rule is enacted, low-income people who are already here may find it difficult to get green cards, incentivizing them to forego public assistance for which they're eligible and advancing hunger, sickness, and further poverty.
At the heart of the rule is redefining what it means for an immigrant to be a "public charge," that is, reliant on the government. In the past, you were a public charge if the government provided more than half of your income through a program like cash welfare, which was exceptionally rare for immigrants (and in general). But in order to paint as many immigrants as possible as welfare moochers, the administration is broadening the scope of who they consider a public charge. Now, it could apply to any immigrant who uses — or is even deemed likely to use — virtually any public benefit, like food stamps, housing assistance, and Medicare's prescription subsidies. That means if you're hoping to come to the U.S. but aren't rich, your application might be rejected merely because an immigration official doesn't think you'd be able to afford medical care as soon as you step off the plane.
This is meant not only to deter poor immigrants from coming to the U.S., but to deter immigrants here legally from using public assistance, even when they are eligible. If you're in the latter group and do use something like food stamps, your chances of being issued a green card might tumble. In fact, when a similar draft executive order was leaked last year, the mere possibility of it becoming policy scared many immigrants into forgoing needed benefits altogether, advocates say. Now that the rule is out in the open, this effect will likely snowball, as the complexities of the 447-page rule aren't exactly light reading.
This policy plays into common stereotypes about people in poverty as well as immigrants. The very term "public charge" implies that favorite of Republican talking points, the person who lives solely off welfare. Though scraping a real living from America's measly welfare is next-to-impossible, it's a neat talking point. In several speeches, Trump has railed that immigrants shouldn't be eligible for welfare benefits until they've been here at least five years ... which is already the law.
But Republicans can lean into these stereotypes and falsehoods, because Americans on both sides of the aisle generally dislike welfare, and conservatives detest it. What else to get Republican voters fired up than booting a bunch of people — immigrants no less — off it?
Well, there's also taking immigrant children away from their mothers and fathers. Yes, the incredibly unpopular policy of separating children from their parents at the border is apparently back on the table, mere months after Trump said he tabled it after a growing outcry over the pain it was causing families. But as always, the pain is the point. "If [immigrants] feel there will be separation, they won't come," Trump said Saturday.
The revamped policy, which is being considered by the administration, is supposedly different from its previous incarnation because it would give parents a "choice": After 20 days in detention, parents could opt to either continue being detained with their children while they await the resolution of their case, which could take months or years, or they could choose to be separated from their children, releasing the kids to a government-run shelter. Apparently, the choice is between incarceration or separation, and the administration heralds this as an improvement.
While these new policies marinate, ICE is routinely rounding up thousands of immigrants across the country for deportation. The Trump administration would have you believe they're primarily focusing on deporting people involved in criminal activity; this is why President Trump brings up MS-13 so often. When he referred to immigrants as "animals," the White House quickly clarified that the president meant members of the gang. But increasingly, the government is targeting immigrants without criminal convictions: In fiscal year 2017, deportations of noncriminal immigrants increased 174 percent compared to 2016. Meanwhile, deportations for those with criminal convictions rose just 13 percent. ICE reported that just over half of its deportations during the 2017 fiscal year were of those with criminal records, but even those records can often be from an "illegal entry" charge or something as minor as a traffic offense.
These policies — curtailing legal immigration, detaining families or separating them, and deporting immigrants by the thousands — are clearly meant to excite Trump's base. In a July poll, immigration was the most-cited issue that Republicans said would affect their vote in the midterm elections, with 26 percent of registered GOP voters saying it was their top concern. Cue the twin storms of Republican candidates raging about murderous immigrants and the administration announcing new draconian policies.
Of course, just because a policy is cruelly cynical doesn't mean it's undesired. As their voters show, this is truly what the GOP wants.