National | Opinion

We’ve seen this before: Public charge rules used to disguise xenophobia

The Trump Administration recently proposed an unprecedented expansion in our country’s public charge rules for applicants for citizenship. For the first time, a legal immigrant to the United States can be considered ineligible for citizenship simply because they utilize SNAP — our nation’s food stamp program.

These new public charge regulations are not only inconsistent with American values, they are abhorrent to American Jews, as we have seen this xenophobic behavior from our government before and been victimized by such rules — with horrifying consequences.

Jews were subjected to an eerily similar policy by the United States after the Nazi Party won control over Germany. By 1933, the U.S. was already nine years deep into the Immigration Act of 1924, a blatantly-racist, anti-Semitic policy which severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. When advocates begged for Jews to be let into the United States to escape persecution, they were met with the argument that we would be an “economic burden” and thus shouldn’t be allowed.

The undeniable xenophobia in U.S. policy, disguised as an economic decision, closed off one of the few escape routes for European Jews facing deportation to concentration camps, and contributed to the Nazi genocide of one third of the Jewish people. 

With rare exception, American Jews are overwhelmingly descended from people fleeing persecution, poverty, and ostracism, just like today’s immigrants. We were met with anti-Semitic suspicion, hardship, and challenges as we sought to integrate into a society run by America’s white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. We are now witnessing the use of those same stereotypes and suspicions against people who — just like us — see the United States as a safe haven from persecution and poverty. We refuse to stay silent while this intolerance is again made a part of our nation’s immigration policy.

And make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening. Our shameful history is repeating itself. This new attempt to curtail immigration scapegoats immigrants and demonizes poverty, and serves to further racialize immigration policies. 

Under existing law, no illegal immigrant is eligible for SNAP. In addition, no legal immigrant can qualify for non-cash benefits, including SNAP, until after they’ve legally been in the U.S. for at least five years. There are no legions of immigrants eager to take advantage of our public benefits system, as the rhetoric from this administration would have you believe.

As an anti-hunger advocacy organization, we find this proposal not merely callous but pointless. By its very design, this proposal undercuts our economy by diminishing the ability of legal working-class immigrants to prosper. And not only are scores of legal immigrants ineligible for SNAP due to the five-year waiting period, but the immigrants being targeted by this administration are – like millions of American citizens – unable to feed their families on their low wage jobs; jobs that form the backbone of the American economy. Most important, anyone who receives SNAP must meet its existing work requirements, thereby demonstrating that they are committed to working and are not a public charge.

Policies like this will only exacerbate the problem of hunger in this country. We are already seeing a chilling effect of families avoiding life-saving benefits because of the public charge threat. Sadly, immigrant children – as well as U.S. citizen children with an immigrant parent – will be most adversely impacted, as families choose to forgo assistance for which their children are eligible, out of fear of jeopardizing a family member’s immigration status.

One of the most overlooked and underappreciated reasons for the American Jewish community’s comparable success over the ensuing decades after World War II is the deep public investment in the American people through the New Deal, Great Society, and civil rights movements—all of which dramatically expanded access to education, vocational training, health care, and supports for basic human needs. We helped to craft and strengthen those programs because our own experiences taught us how essential they are to realizing the American dream.

Then, as now, this social safety net is the foundation on which we have built a strong economy for both American citizens and legal newcomers. The Trump Administration’s proposal to change the definition of public charge is heartless and misguided. We, as American Jews, must not stand idly by and let history repeat itself.

Liz Kanter Groskind lives in Tucson. She is the board chair of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national advocacy organization working to end hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel.

Joe Goldman is the senior policy associate at MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.