This is an immigrant state in an immigrant nation, at a time that is proving unreasonably — and unproductively — harsh for immigrants.
There has been the ongoing but recently surging strife at the U.S.-Mexico border, in which the federal government has cracked down on those crossing the border, ostensibly seeking asylum. Supporters of the Trump administration’s policy have cast this as a means of stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country.
But the latest act — the implementation of a new Department of Homeland Security rule on “public charge inadmissibility” — aims to ratchet down the number of legal, permanent immigrants as well.
The new rule essentially amplifies a provision in existing U.S. law: the inadmissibility test. And it applies to a large swath of people here.
An estimated 18% of the state’s people are immigrants, according to The Legal Clinic, a new nonprofit aimed to provide them with help. About 60% are citizens, but roughly 50,000 are eligible to apply for naturalization. And according to the American Community Survey, Hawaii has 212,000 noncitizens and their family members who could be affected.
Already the government can deny a person admission to the U.S. or lawful permanent residence, or “green card” status, if that person is found likely to be a financial burden in the future — a “public charge,” based on their use of government assistance. But wording has been vague, and those criteria were applied unevenly.
The new rule more plainly would count use of assistance against an applicant, though there’s still the possibility of misunderstanding. It takes effect officially Oct. 15, but it’s already causing anxiety in families statewide and across the nation.
Immigrant advocates say that even before it was finalized, the rule was causing a chilling effect of fear and confusion, with families disenrolling from benefits they are qualified to receive.
Some of that worry is needless, as there are some exemptions. In Hawaii and elsewhere, the immediate need is for outreach and education to counsel families against unnecessary deprivation.
In the past, the practice is to look at the applicant’s use of cash assistance for income maintenance, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), comparable state or local programs, and government-funded institutional care.
The Trump administration intends to cast a wider net. In addition to those programs, immigration agents will look also at whether the following wells have been tapped by the applicant, starting from the date the rule goes into effect:
>> Medicaid (excepting emergency services, and for pregnant women and children under 21).
>> Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamps”).
>> Public housing and Section 8 housing benefits (in Section 8 projects, or through individual vouchers).
There are various initiatives aimed at blunting this rule, or defeating it outright. On Wednesday, attorneys general from 13 states filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in California to stop the rule, charging that it violates the Immigration and Nationality Act.
Hawaii has a big stake in the outcome, so it would not be surprising to see the AG’s office here join the suit. But whether or not it does, the action should at least secure a temporary stay and time to prepare.
Further, the U.S. House has introduced H.R. 3222, a measure that would cut funding for the rule’s implementation, with a similar measure being eyed for the Senate.
Given the partisan schism on Capitol Hill, the chances for success here are slim, but those concerned about immigrant communities should support the push nonetheless. Awareness of the unintended consequences must be raised.
Hawaii’s delegation is pushing back rhetorically. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said that “we have already seen this widespread chilling effect on immigrant families who are afraid to use needed government benefits since the Trump administration proposed this rule months ago.”
And it ignores that the labor pool does need the contributions and energy from new arrivals.
“The whole point is you come here with nothing and build something,” U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz tweeted.
Indeed. Statistics show immigrants use much less in the way of public benefits than do U.S. citizens, and many do work their way up the social ladder.
Is there a need to gate-keep who gets into the country permanently, and is an evaluation of their potential to become productive citizens part of that process? Of course.
But this must be balanced with the reality that food and housing are costly, especially in Hawaii, and that many newcomers reasonably need a little help before becoming self-sufficient. Those who struggle silently may soon end up on the streets, compounding the homelessness and public-health crises.
That would not help anyone, citizen or immigrant, long term. And it’s neither the nation, nor the state, we should want to see taking shape.