To understand this proposal, it’s helpful to know some history. In 1882, before we had a federal immigration system, Congress passed two laws.
The first, the Chinese Exclusion Act, barred Chinese workers. The second, targeting Irish Catholics, allowed officials to exclude what were then called “public charges”—people who couldn’t work, didn’t have family here, and were likely to end up in almshouses.
Before our modern immigration system, the public charge test was often used to discriminate—to exclude people with disabilities, unmarried women, even Jews fleeing the Holocaust. During World War II, we repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and, not long after that, most other racist immigration laws.
The public charge test remained, and was used to exclude the few immigrants who couldn’t work, didn’t have family here, and were likely end up in the modern equivalent of almshouses—nursing homes or wholly dependent on cash assistance.
Now, President Donald Trump wants to turn back the clock—he wants to use public charge to discriminate again and to override our family immigration system.
Based on statements Trump has made about immigrants from other countries—whether it’s the claims he’s made about Mexican immigrants since he announced his campaign or his contempt for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa—it seems the Trump administration is revamping the policy to support his own racist animus.