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I am a public servant, not a public charge

Three federal judges have now blocked a Trump administration effort to prevent immigrants from getting public assistance. This is a win for the American dream.

Three federal judges have now blocked a Trump administration effort to prevent immigrants from getting public assistance. This is a win for the American dream.JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

In October, three federal judges blocked a Trump administration effort to prevent hard-working, low-income immigrants from getting public assistance. Although the administration has appealed these rulings, this is a win for immigrants, citizens, and the American dream.

I am a product of that dream — and of public assistance.

In 1975, at age 25, my mother emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States. She moved in with relatives in Jamaica, Queens. Her first job was in the garment industry in lower Manhattan, trimming excess thread off clothing. A few months later, Leviton Manufacturing Company hired her to work on an assembly line in Brooklyn. She was a union worker with a steady paycheck, and eventually, rented her own apartment with her sister.


Twenty years later, Leviton closed the plant, and my mother lost her job. The severance pay she received carried both of us for a few weeks, but ultimately Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance became our safety net.

When she started working again, preparing food for an Au Bon Pain at LaGuardia Airport, the wages she earned were not enough to cover our basic necessities. We still needed Medicaid and food stamps to meet our health care and food needs, despite her full-time job.

Under the rule proposed by the Trump administration, which had been set to go into effect on Oct. 15 until the federal courts temporarily blocked it, immigrant parents who find themselves financially struggling could face deportation if they, like my hard-working mother, obtain public benefits to keep their families afloat during times of need.

The rule states that US immigration officers could deny a noncitizen entry or a resident application if they are determined to be a “public charge.”

Twenty years ago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (the Department of Homeland Security’s predecessor) issued guidance that explicitly excluded non-cash benefits, such as Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, and housing assistance, from the public charge determination. And Congress has twice rejected attempts to add these public benefits to the public charge analysis.


The Trump administration seeks to corrupt that precedent, making it likelier that a noncitizen will be denied entry or a green card for reasons that never before have been used. The new rule would impact millions of families and is another way the Trump administration uses our immigration system to inflict pain on immigrants.

Those affected would have two choices: Play it safe by avoiding all government benefits or make use of benefits but risk removal and separation from their family. What an awful and unnecessary choice.

In 2017, almost 10 million children, many of them citizens themselves, had a noncitizen parent. The implications of the Trump public charge rule for these families are grave. Many households with noncitizen members will unenroll from vital health, nutritional, and housing benefits programs — programs to which they legally have a right.

DHS claims that the rule change promotes self-sufficiency. Was my mother not trying to be self-sufficient? The real public charges are huge corporations that rely on the government to subsidize the pittance they pay their hard-working employees — in taxes.

In 2006, then-Senator Jeff Sessions spoke passionately about his conviction that only certain people should be allowed to immigrate to the United States. He said that “almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the United States is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.”


I guess he thinks speech-language pathologists, social workers, accountants, and lawyers aren’t skilled or successful. Because that’s what the children of my mother and her siblings have become in the United States. Public assistance was an investment in our future contributions to this country.

I’m an attorney serving the people of Massachusetts, fighting for their rights to equal treatment under the law. Advocating in support of immigrants — particularly those impacted by wage theft and discrimination — has been central to my work throughout my legal career, and this fight is personal.

Government assistance enabled my mother to support me and to get through a tough financial time. America must live up to its collective values and ensure all families have the same opportunity to build brighter futures for themselves and their children.

David Ureña is a fellow of the Public Rights Project and a special assistant attorney general in the office of the Massachusetts attorney general.