On February 25, 1923, my mother, Bejla, two months old, arrived at Ellis Island on the S.S. Minnekahda, along with her two parents, Etel and Levi, fleeing Czortków, Russia.
This was no easy time to arrive here. The New York Times reported that the city had been so cold that the harbor was “ice-clogged” that day and that coal deliveries across the Hudson were made “under great difficulty.” The city was also in the throes of a deadly influenza epidemic.
Times were tough, but they were openly embraced by New York and America.
My father’s two parents were also immigrants from Eastern Europe. While none of my family members then were formally classified as refugees, they were clearly fleeing the anti-Semitic violence and destitution so common in their homelands. Odds are, had they not escaped, they would have been killed during the Holocaust or in a pogrom, as were many other members of my family who stayed. Thus I, and tens of millions of fellow descendants of immigrants, literally owe our lives to welcoming U.S. immigration policies when our families arrived.
So, few things trouble me more than when recent immigrants – or children or grandchildren of immigrants (such as Donald Trump) – want to take away the welcome mat for immigrants who come after them (except those they marry).
That’s why I am so outraged that the Trump Administration recently unveiled a proposed administrative rule that would force legal immigrant families to make an unfathomable choice: either turn down temporary food, housing, and health care aid that their family needs to avoid hunger, homelessness, or unnecessary disease or risk losing a path to citizenship that could keep their family together.
Make no mistake about it: If this proposal is implemented as proposed, it will increase poverty – and the worst symptoms of poverty such as hunger, homelessness, and early deaths – in New York City and nationwide.
Hard-working legal immigrant families would lose key assistance for health care, housing, and food. Not only would such a policy be an immoral rejection of America’s welcoming ethos (under which most of our families entered this country), it would be economically counter-productive.
While new immigrants have higher rates of poverty and lower median incomes than native-born Americans, immigrants who have become naturalized citizens have lower rates of poverty and higher median incomes than native-born Americans. Therefore, making it harder for new immigrants to obtain the temporary benefits they need to lift themselves out of poverty as they work will only hamper their ability to enter the economic mainstream of society.
If enacted, the rule would also slam the economy in other, broader ways. Even the proposed rule admits that, if enforced, this cruel new guideline would also harm hospitals, landlords, grocery stores, and farmers by limiting immigrants’ use of Medicaid, nutrition benefits, and federally-funded
President Trump’s administration has implied that, if the rule is implemented, non-profit groups such as the one I manage, Hunger Free America, will be able to pick up the slack. That’s nonsense. Many Americans – particularly middle and low-income ones – already donate very generously to fund anti-poverty work, but if this rule is implemented as proposed, all the charitable efforts in the nation won’t be able to come even close, and we won’t be able to fill the vast gap left by government.
This nation welcomed my family, and tens of millions of others. Now it’s all our jobs to ensure that we continue to welcome those seeking safety, health, and freedom.
We as a nation should be better than this horrid proposed rule.
Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide 501c3 nonprofit direct service and advocacy organization, based in New York City, and author of the book America, We Need to Talk: a Self-Help Book the Nation.
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