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Opinion | Michael A. Cohen

The racist intent of Trump’s new immigration rule

Acting director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a briefing at the White House on Monday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

If there’s one surefire way to inflame President Trump and his supporters, it’s to point out that his words (and theirs) are racist.

Telling four Democratic lawmakers of color to “go back” to where you came from; calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers”; denigrating nonwhite countries as “shitholes” — this is just the president speaking his mind, or so his backers and enablers like to claim.

So let’s put aside the rhetoric and focus on this administration’s policies. It’s there where the racist intent is even more obvious.

This week, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced a change to US immigration law that could have a devastating impact on legal immigrants — and disproportionately impact people of color.


The Trump administration is adopting a new rule that will allow immigration officials to take into account immigrants’ financial resources when determining if they should receive a green card.

Previously, immigration officials took into account a narrow set of public benefit programs when assessing an application for legal-immigrant status. Trump would widen that criteria to include Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 housing support, and other public assistance benefits. In addition, officials can also consider education, health status, and household income.

In short, the “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse” who were once welcomed to America’s shores should look elsewhere if they are seeking opportunity.

Perhaps the language of the famous Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty should be changed to, “Give me your well-rested, your comfortably elite yearning to make more money, the well-to-do graduates of your colleges and universities. Send these, the well-housed, unperturbed by adversity, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

According to Cuccinelli, ‘‘We want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient. That’s a core principle of the American Dream.”


Suffice to say, Cuccinelli’s definition of the American Dream is one that bears little relationship to the reality of millions of Americans. On my father’s side, his grandparents and great-grandparents came to the United States more than a century ago with little else but a dream to better their lives — and to escape anti-Semitism. For many Americans, my story is their story as well.

One can point to reams of data that show immigrants add so much to a country more than they take — and that the overwhelming majority come to America not to live off the dole, but rather to work.

Indeed, immigrants use fewer public benefits than native-born Americans — and many are ineligible for public benefit programs.

But make no mistake: This isn’t about making America more self-sufficient; it’s about making it whiter. Over and over, Trump’s immigration policies have targeted those who are brown or black — all the while extolling the virtues of immigration from overwhelmingly white countries like Norway.

The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the tightening of the rules for asylum seekers, and the efforts to ban Muslims from entering the country are well-known. But it’s the attacks on those who are here legally that are so revealing.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has repeatedly tried to revoke the status of those living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, a designation intended to protect noncitizens who cannot return to their home countries because of war or natural disaster.


Over the past two years, Trump has sought to end TPS for those from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sudan, and, most recently, Syria. According to one recent report, these migrants are anything but a drain on the country. Rather, they contribute more than $4.5 billion in taxes — and billions more in mortgage payments and rent.

Now Trump is opening yet another attack on immigrants who are here legally — and practically encouraging them to return to their native countries.

Opponents of illegal immigration have repeatedly said they want people to get in line and go through the process by the rules. How does one reconcile that oft-stated view with an administration that has made it much more difficult to enter the United States legally, get legal status once here, and stay even after being granted refuge?

The reality is that the debate about immigration has long been about so much more than immigration. It’s not about public benefits; it’s not about jobs; and it’s not about crime. It’s about a president who is a white nationalist (and who has surrounded himself with nationalists) trying to make America a whiter country. It’s about the cultural anxieties of Trump’s supporters who fear America’s increasingly multicultural future — and want a president who seeks to hold back progress. His supporters might not like to hear that. It might hurt their feelings, but I’ll reserve my sympathies for the immigrants who are paying the real price of Trump’s racist policies.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.