‘Public Charge’ Is a Disgrace

This past, the Supreme Court voted to allow the “Public Charge” expansion to take effect and, as a result, further restrict immigration.   As CBS News reported:

By dramatically expanding the definition of a “public charge, or an economic burden on society,” the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) regulation unveiled in August gives officials more power to deny visas and green card applications from immigrants and prospective immigrants whom the government determines rely, or could rely, on certain public benefits like food stamps and government housing programs.

It is worth noting that the term “public charge” originated in 1882 in an attempt to limit the influx of immigrants from developing and/or non-white countries. It was coupled with discriminatory legislation including the “Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the entry of most Chinese immigrants on the premise that they jeopardized “the good order of certain localities.”

Now why, as Jews, does this matter to us?  Well, for one, the history of the use of this term and policy goes against our values. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism wrote recently:

Jewish tradition calls us to “speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9). The implementation of the public charge regulation will punish some of the most vulnerable residents in the United States. We are reminded 36 times throughout the Torah to love the stranger as our own; compelling people to choose between caring for their health and well-being and their immigration status is not loving, but callous.

In other words, as Rabbi Pesner rightfully points out, as Jews, we are commanded over and over again to love our neighbor as ourselves, to clothe the naked and feed the hungry.

But that isn’t the only reason that this new ruling should concern us. We would be wise to remember that this same idea, the “public charge” rule, was used to restrict Jews who were trying to escape Nazi persecution from coming to this country. In other words, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue.This shouldn’t be about what past presidents did or did not do. Or what current presidents are or are not doing it. Rather, this is a mirror of what, quite literally, killed our family members who wished to find freedom and safety  in the United States during the darkest period of our history. As Time Magazine describes:

Raymond Geist, the U.S. consul in Berlin charged with applying immigration policy in Germany during much of the 1930s, saw firsthand the destruction the policy caused. The Nazis prohibited most German Jews from taking substantial assets out of the country, which meant they would be potential public charges unless they had close relatives in the U.S. with ample resources. As a result, American consuls rejected the applications of tens of thousands of people who could have made fine American citizens, thus trapping them in the escalating Nazi persecution.

This is a stark reminder of the fact that individuals looking to immigrate often do so precisely because their lives are under threat (be that threat violence or poverty) and that such a policy discriminates against the people who need it the most.

In 1933, when  Franklin Roosevelt considered changing this policy to  allow for more immigrants from Germany to enter our country, critics and antisemitic anti-immigrant voices called this move “the Jew Deal.”  Even when the State Department eased quotas, anti-immigrant rhetoric maintained barriers in practice “and over the next year the total from Germany rose only slightly. More than 80% of the German quota remained unused.”

Part of the challenge is the vague language that surrounds public charge clauses, then and now. During Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing Holocaust, it was the ambiguity of the public charge clause that, as Time reports, “allowed Hoover to cut quotas by some 90%, and that allowed some State Department officials in Roosevelt’s first term to maintain that the German quota was unfilled because of the lack of ‘qualified’ applicants.” This same vague language is being used today to keep non-white immigrants and refugees from South America and the Middle East out of the country.  We are seeing racism and xenophobia in full view once again, not even a century after we saw the tragic results of such policies before. As if the historical pain of hearing the resurfacing of this policy was not enough, we got the news on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I am so heartbroken by this. Even if we forget the call of the prophets and the words of our  Torah to welcome the stranger, we can most likely trace back those parents, grandparents, cousins and siblings who died because their immigration applications were restricted or denied.  Yes, the public line is that “This rule would deny legal permanent residency to many immigrants who use, or might use, public benefits in the future,” but we Jews know better.  This is the resurfacing of open racism, open xenophobia, the very same kind that led to the deaths of our family members in the Shoah.

Immigration is complicated. Let me be clear. I am not advocating open borders. I am not saying that these aren’t complex issues. But this policy is wrong. It is anti-Torah. It is anti-Jewish. The blood of our ancestors cries out from the ground. There is much to be debated and discussed when it comes to how best to handle immigration. But as Jews, concern shouldn’t even begin to describe what we feel when we hear the words “public charge” used in conjunction with American immigration policies. We must fight for groups whose lives will be endangered because of this. We must fight because when it was so many of our loved ones who were in need, we had no one to fight for them.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Harvey is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, in West Lafayette, Indiana. He joined the community from his previous position as rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Ordained by the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 2015, Rabbi Harvey earned a Master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and a Bachelor’s degree in psychology from Boston University. Throughout his tenure at HUC-JIR, Rabbi Harvey served congregations, small and large, in Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. Rabbi Harvey was recently admitted to the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, within the Doctor of Science in Jewish Studies program.
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