Immigrants should earn their own way

Many Mainers are now finding out that the Legislature decided to bite the bullet and jump in with the federal government and support the “Real ID” law. It was a true policy debate; Secretary of State Matt Dunlap and yours truly opposed it, while the Bangor Daily News editorial board and Gov. Paul LePage supported it.

You win some, you lose some.

Accordingly, I have begun the process to compile the various documents showing  Dunlap’s office that I’m really me and that I’m really allowed to be here. One such option is a passport. So I got mine out and saw that it had expired. Yet another hoop to jump through.

As I flipped through looking at stamps from other countries, one stood out. On March 26, 2005, I landed at Gatwick Airport outside London. They let me into the United Kingdom, so that was good. But they also imprinted a decree on my passport:

“Recourse to public funds prohibited.”

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration won a legal victory at the Supreme Court this week when five justices decided to lift a trial court’s nationwide injunction. The legal minutiae of the dispute is fairly technical, but in essence, the now-allowed rule expands the grounds upon which immigration officials may deny entry to the United States. It does so by expanding the definition of the terms “public charge” and “public benefit.”

The Statue of Liberty is shown on a stormy afternoon in August. The words from Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem “The Colossus,” inscribed on a plaque inside the statue’s pedestal, welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” are familiar to many Americans and people from all over the world. Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli stirred controversy last year when he said in an NPR interview that the line should be changed to “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

For a long time, federal law has greatly discouraged immigrants who might become a “public charge.” It is similar to Britain’s prohibition on recourse to public funds they kindly stamped in my passport. The operative theory is that — with limited exceptions — immigrants seeking to come to this country should support themselves through their own efforts. Or at least the efforts of loved ones and communities.

That was the experience of many generations of immigrants over the years. More distant cousins, aunts, and uncles would follow their families to the United States, leveraging their relationships to find work. Immigrant communities — often through religious organizations — would congregate and support each other. Employers would bring in foreign labor for specific jobs, such as the Italians (including my great-grandfather) hired to build the railroads and mills in the northern parts of Maine.

And, yes, sometimes even state governments would send out “ambassadors” to recruit immigrants as part of an economic development strategy. That was the genesis of New Sweden, Maine. Scandanavians were recruited and promised free land — with a tax-free start-up period — if they were willing to work it into a productive farm.

The new Trump Administration rule broadens the realm of government programs that qualify as a “public benefit,” the receipt of which may turn someone into a “public charge.” The big additions are federally funded housing programs like Section 8, SNAP (formerly “food stamps”), and non-emergency Medicaid — MaineCare — services.

None of these were previously considered “public benefits” under the immigration rules. Should they be? Well, there is a certain logic that would include them. Non-emergency MaineCare is the same class of spending that could provide disabled Mainers with services. Those are the oft-discussed “waitlists” that are in the news yet again. Isn’t that a public benefit program?

However, this entire debate is a microcosm of the ongoing mess that is our immigration system. Fighting over which type of government programs should be “public benefits” that might make someone a “public charge” is much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What is really needed is some clear-headed leadership to effectuate some systemic change.

The height of our walls — literally and metaphorically — and the width of our gates — same — are questions which should be debated in good faith. But my guess is that we can all agree that, once a new immigrant has come through the metaphoric gate — entered the country legally — they should be able to earn their own way. Like the Swedes, Italians, Lebanese, and countless other immigrants before them.

All without recourse to public funds. But, hey, at least they can get a Real ID.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.