Two weeks ago, a 21-year-old white man from Dallas drove 10 hours to El Paso, Texas — a city where a majority of families have Mexican roots — and shot and killed 22 people and injured 24 others at a Walmart. It was the worst terrorist attack on Latino people in U.S. history. In a manifesto released shortly before the attack, the man said he was inspired to kill because of the “invasion of Hispanics” entering the United States, a phrase often deployed by President Trump to promote harsh immigration policies
Just days later, ICE raided seven chicken processing plants in Mississippi, detaining nearly 700 undocumented workers, most of them Latinos. The record-breaking raid took place on the first day of school in the state, leaving children sobbing as they waited to learn what happened to their parents.
But the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants weren’t over yet.
This week it issued a new rule that would change U.S. immigration policy to bar legal immigrants from permanent residency if they or someone in their household has benefited from public assistance programs. The so-called “public charge” rule is set to take effect on Oct. 15.
Speaking to NPR reporter Rachel Martin this week, Ken Cuccinelli — the former attorney general of Virginia and current acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — was asked about the Emma Lazarus poem etched beneath the Statue of Liberty that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”
The U.S. adopted the first public charge rule blocking prospective immigrants due to disability or lack of economic resources in the late 19th century. Besides denying entry to Chinese and Mexican immigrants, U.S. policy at the time barred from entry Southern and Eastern Europeans — many of whom were Jewish — if they did not have $20 cash on hand and a ticket to their destination.
Over time, the U.S. became more lenient in applying the public charge rule toward Europeans who utilized public relief programs. But it treated Mexican immigrants who did the same harshly, and ultimately expelled residents of Mexican descent en masse during the Great Depression.
Harkening back to these xenophobic policies, Trump’s public charge rule represents a significant change from the guidelines in place since 1999. Under the current policy, only cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income are considered, but the new guidelines also count Medicaid, Section 8 housing assistance, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as potentially disqualifying benefits.
The rule could have a particularly devastating effect on immigrant communities in the South, the nation’s poorest region. There, programs like housing assistance and SNAP have helped to lift millions out of poverty. And of the 15 states with the most SNAP beneficiaries, eight are in the South: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
There have already been reports of immigrants withdrawing from safety-net programs out of fear that their immigration status could be in jeopardy. Meanwhile, advocacy groups like the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty point to what they believe to be the real problem for immigrants and non-immigrants alike: lack of resources.
“We all share the concern that millions of U.S. households struggle to find affordable housing in the ongoing nationwide housing crisis,” Eric Tars, the group’s legal director, said in a press release. “But blaming struggling immigrant families will not fix the problem.”
Lawsuits have already been filed to block the new rule. One was filed on Tuesday by California’s Santa Clara County and the city of San Francisco, while another was filed on Wednesday by 13 states — including Cuccinelli’s home state of Virginia.
Current Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, called the rule change “shameful and unlawful.”
“The Trump administration’s overhaul could expose thousands of lawful immigrants and green card holders to deportation, and force them to make an inhumane choice of whether to protect their lawful immigration status or risk it by accessing health care, food, or housing assistance for which they are already eligible,” Herring wrote. “In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has admitted that the rule would ‘deter legally present visa holders from using important assistance programs.’”
Rebekah Barber is a researcher and writer at Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies focusing on racial justice, democracy and Southern history. As a student activist she organized around issues including voting rights, the Fight for $15 and Medicaid expansion. She holds bachelor’s degrees in English and history from N.C. Central University in Durham, North Carolina.