Public Charges, the Statue of Liberty and the Welfare State

On Monday, August 12, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced an update of an admissions hurdle barring applicants for admission to the United States deemed liable to become a public charge.

The new rule defines the term “public charge” to refer to any person who receives one or more “designated public benefits” for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. The term “public benefit” is defined to include any cash benefits for income maintenance, Supplemental Security Income (created by the Social Security Amendments of 1972), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (a welfare program introduced in 1996), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (a successor of the Food Stamp Act of 1964), most forms of Medicaid, and certain housing programs.

Enter the Statue of Liberty

The liable to become a public charge concept was first implemented in the Immigration Act of 1882, which stated that any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge would be prohibited from entering the United States.

The Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886. A little more than four years had already gone by since the Immigration Act of 1882 had been signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, on August 3, 1882.

In 1903, more than two decades since the signing of the Immigration Act of 1882, an Emma Lazarus sonnet called The New Colossus was mounted inside the Statue of Liberty's pedestal. The second stanza famously proclaimed:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Obviously this was not meant to contradict the law of the land, which prohibited the entry of aliens deemed likely to become a public charge. The proclamation represents a moral ideal that the nation prides itself in. The difference between legal reality and moral aspiration must be recognized and understood.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society

In 1964-65, President Lyndon Johnson launched a series of programs intended to eliminate poverty and racial injustice, creating what he referred to in speeches as a Great Society. Johnson's program featured an “unconditional war on poverty”. The War on Poverty featured the following pieces of legislation:

  • The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which formed local Community Action Agencies to provide jobs and training in local communities.
  • The Food Stamp Act of 1964, which created the Food Stamp Program.
  • The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided federal funding to primary and secondary education.
  • The Social Security Amendments of 1965, which resulted in the creation of the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The War on Poverty was a giant step forward in the evolution of the United States into a welfare state, which began during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR's New Deal featured the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which instituted the right to a minimum wage and "time-and-a-half" overtime pay.

The Welfare State and Immigration Policy

Emma Lazarus' The New Colossus surely acts as a draw for foreigners eager to begin a new life in America, but it competes with the inducement formed by a collection of generous social welfare programs, acting like a giant magnet for impoverished families and individuals in Mexico and Central America.

With immigration law enforcement agencies overwhelmed by a surge in migration across the U.S. southern border, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency of the Department of Homeland Security saw a need to update and strengthen the public charge standard which has been a feature of U.S. immigration law since 1882.

The Rage of the Dimwits