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Free of Charge

from the magazine

Free of Charge

For Bill de Blasio and other progressives, newcomers to the U.S. have no obligations. Autumn 2019
Politics and law
New York

Earlier this year, the Trump administration announced that it would expand the list of government benefits it considers when defining a person as a “public charge.” Under the new terms, an immigrant receiving, say, food stamps, emergency cash assistance, or living in public housing may see those benefits count against him when he seeks to upgrade or extend his visa status or apply for citizenship.

It was long believed that immigrants to the United States should not impose social burdens and should thus secure local sponsors who could guarantee their expenses until they got settled. The Immigration Act of 1891, for example, excluded from entry “insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” and other undesirable categories, including felons and polygamists. 

Progressive localities have responded furiously to Trump’s directive. New York City and State have joined a lawsuit to prevent the expansion of public-charge criteria, alleging that it reflects animus against nonwhite immigrants. “The ultimate city of immigrants will never stop fighting President Trump’s xenophobic policies,” declared New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. New York attorney general Letitia James called the rule change “a clear violation of our laws and our values” that would make “more children go hungry,” though aid to children was excluded from consideration in the new rule.

A Federal judge in Manhattan issued a nationwide injunction earlier this month, blocking the new rules from going into effect. Judge George B. Daniels said the Trump administration was perverting the intent of the law, and that the rule “is repugnant to the American Dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upward mobility.” The judge explains that “public charge,” as it was defined in the 1880s, meant long-term dependence on government aid; not receipt of food stamps for a year or two. But America in the nineteenth century offered little in the way of public assistance; it was not considered the government’s job to house, educate, feed, and tend to the illnesses of the general population. Today, local, state, and federal agencies spend trillions of dollars on social services, and it is much easier now to be on the dole than it was then.

It was only recently that New York asked immigrants’ sponsors to reimburse the city for services that the sponsored person had used. In 2012, when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, the Human Resources Administration notified sponsors of immigrant single adults who had received cash assistance from the city that they would be expected to pay back the money.

Many of them did, without complaint. According to Bloomberg’s HRA commissioner, Robert Doar, the agency, working with federal immigration authorities, contacted 580 individuals and informed them that they were on the hook for benefits that their “sponsees” had collected from the city. Of this group, 250 people paid $996,000 to the city to cover those costs. The sponsor recovery program, says Doar, took care to exempt poor sponsors or hardship cases.

On taking office in 2014, however, de Blasio canceled the collection efforts, which he had opposed in his prior position as public advocate, when he had demanded that HRA “stop punishing sponsors when immigrants seek assistance from the city.” As mayor, de Blasio went a step further: he refunded all the money to the 250 sponsors. De Blasio’s view of immigration is that sponsorship is a mere formality; taking it seriously, and expecting financial commitment and responsibility, constitutes “punishment.” As the mayor sees it, every immigrant makes the city stronger, even if he is living on the dole.

In his five years as mayor, de Blasio has blocked municipal cooperation with federal immigration authorities, issued city identification cards to residents ineligible for government IDs, expanded health-care services to illegal immigrants, and assigned taxpayer-funded immigration attorneys to people facing deportation, including serious criminals. The key to understanding his disregard for the rule of law, whether state or federal, is to understand his worldview, which does not recognize the concept of “public charge”—perhaps because, in the progressive vision, everyone should be dependent on government, anyway.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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