Esther J. Cepeda: In Trump’s America, there’s no ‘right way’ to be an immigrant

By Esther Cepeda

There’s one word that I get more angry email about than any other: “illegal.”

Some readers get infuriated that I don’t use the word enough, because they truly believe most immigrants fall into this category.

This is wrong, of course. There were more than 43.7 million immigrants living in the United States in 2016, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and nearly three-quarters of them are living here legally.

Others recoil at criticisms of the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants, screeching in all-caps: “Our president is only targeting the illegal ones!” They usually argue that President Trump just wants to punish those who didn’t come to the United States “the right way.”

This is intellectually dishonest. But if anyone still really believes in this fig leaf that Trump is only targeting “illegal immigrants,” let’s rip it away: This administration targets all immigrants, regardless of their status.

For starters, it is legal and proper for migrants who fear for their lives to request asylum at United States borders. However, reports from immigrant advocates — including the ACLU and the American Immigration Council — allege that U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are breaking both U.S. and international laws by denying them entry.

Brian Hoffman, a pro bono coordinator at the International Institute of Akron, an Ohio-based advocacy organization, recently said during a press briefing that he and others volunteering at the border observed agents making migrants wait for hours in scorching heat of more than 100 degrees. Some migrant families camped out overnight to maintain their spots in line, only to be turned away.

For immigrants already in the country legally, the Trump administration wants to severely limit so-called “chain migration,” i.e., the process by which U.S. citizens or permanent residents can sponsor family members to come to the country and eventually become citizens themselves.

Yes, this is the very process that enabled First Lady Melania Trump’s parents to become citizens late last week.

In the near future, Trump might start limiting the number of legal immigrants who can become naturalized citizens or be granted permanent legal residence (i.e., a green card) by disqualifying any applicants who have ever used children’s health insurance (CHIP), “Obamacare,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other social safety-net benefits. This would also apply to anyone living in a household with someone who received these benefits.

Drafts of the Trump administration’s proposals to change the existing rules for pursuing legal permanent residence have been floating around since last March. But immigrant advocates point out that the upcoming midterms has given the proposal fresh momentum.

“The latest reports of an updated draft really does seem to indicate that they are moving forward with publishing these proposed changes before Labor Day,” said Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigrant Law Center, during a recent press briefing. “We’ve also heard separately that this is [Trump adviser] Stephen Miller’s top priority on immigration, because he believes it’s going to help them for the purposes of the midterm election.”

Hincapie and many others see these moves as part of a larger strategy to instill fear in immigrant communities, regardless of their status, and potentially starve 20 million people of resources they are legally entitled to and desperately need.

During the same press briefing, Olivia Golden, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy said, “This is a policy to deter immigrants from accessing services, and we’ve already seen the effects. Parents, early-childhood education workers and others are reporting that families are taking children out of SNAP, not taking them to the doctor and not signing children up for early-childhood classes. We are already seeing children — overwhelmingly U.S.-born — bearing the brunt of the damage.”

As with all other immigration policy, however, harming immigrants hurts everyone. If legal immigrants drop out of the health care exchanges to avoid becoming ineligible for a green card, it could make rates go up for others. If parents take children off Medicaid programs, school systems could be left unable to get reimbursement for special-education services.

Face it, if 20 million legal immigrants stop seeking any number of services in order to not jeopardize their potential to get a green card in the future, it will almost certainly unleash unintended consequences on U.S.-born citizens in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.

Let’s stop pretending that Trump’s enmity toward immigrants has anything to do with whether they are legal or “illegal.” It’s clear that the only “right way” for immigrants to be in Trump’s America is if they are rich, persecuted or gone.

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