Election 2016

Trump's Attack on Immigrants Fuels Right-Wing Agenda to Destroy the Safety Net

The far right has targeted welfare since FDR's New Deal.

Demonstrations at San Francisco Airport.
Photo Credit: Steve Rosenfeld

The latest White House proposals viciously targeting migrants by deporting anyone who received government benefits within their first five years of arriving in the U.S. is not merely a new attack on immigrant communities, but a continuation of a decades-old right-wing war on the poor and government safety nets.

The Trump administration’s draft executive order deporting any immigrant receiving welfare—with or without a visa—was disclosed in media reports Tuesday. It followed Friday’s orders creating a ban on travelers from select Muslim countries, and another order withholding federal aid for sanctuary cities, or those refusing to help federal immigration police.

Last week’s travel ban was swiftly challenged, with five different federal courts ruling it was likely unconstitutional and temporarily suspending it. On Tuesday, San Francisco was the first city to sue to overturn the sanctuary city order, saying it was unconstitutional under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment that protects states' rights from federal preemption.

“The Executive Branch may not commandeer state and local officials to enforce federal law,” the suit said, and warned this was not the end of Trump’s war on immigrants and their supporters. “San Francisco recognizes that there will be additional developments related to the [sanctuary city] Executive Order in the weeks and months to come. But the consequences threatened by the Executive Order are too severe for San Francisco to wait.”

“The Executive Order threatens the loss of more than $1 billion in federal funds that support vital services, the loss of community trust, and the loss of San Francisco’s sovereign authority to set and follow its own laws on matters appropriately and historically within the control of local government,” the suit said.

But make no mistake, the sanctuary city order is the leading edge of an old, racist, right-wing wedge to destroy the government safety nets that emerged in the 75 years since President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The rhetoric and policies put forth by Trump are recycling many of the same arguments made by segregationists in the 1950s that demonized black welfare recipients, and which continued under the anti-welfare policies enacted under presidents Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Bill Clinton in the 1990s. This goal can also be seen in narrower recent fights, such as the House GOP’s ongoing effort to defund food stamps.

The Right-Wing War on Welfare

The University of California’s Ellen Reese has chronicled how the right-wing vitriol and rhetoric used against welfare recipients is now resurfacing under Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Her book, Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present, traces a half century of attacks on federal welfare programs and their prime beneficiaries, single mothers and children.

“Attacks on welfare mothers resonated strongly with the public, especially white voters, because they appealed to anti-tax sentiments, racial resentments, traditional ‘family values,’ and rising expectations that poor mothers work,” she wrote, describing the 1996 welfare reform debate, and presciently, Trump's base. “Proposals to deny benefits to legal immigrants passed, despite the fact that most Americans opposed them.”

Her comments are instructive because Trump’s draft executive order—to deport migrants, with or without visas, who receive public assistance within five years of arriving—builds on Bill Clinton’s draconian 1996 welfare bill, which barred immigrants from receiving aid until they had been in the country for five years. But what's clear from the larger point she makes, is that Trump's team is using the same racist rhetoric and politics that were used a generation ago to attack welfare mothers.

“Attacks on welfare mothers provided Republicans with fertile ground for attacking liberals and uniting its disparate constituents: racial conservatives, nativists, the Christian Right, and neoliberal corporate elites,” Reese wrote.

Substitute “aliens” for “welfare mothers” in the White House memo drafted for Trump that makes the case for an executive order to deport any immigrant on public assistance, and what emerges is how the war on the poor—and on government welfare safety nets—has come full circle.

“Our country’s immigration laws are designed to protect American taxpayers and promote immigration self-sufficiency,” began the January 23 White House memo by Andrew Bremberg. “Yet households headed by aliens (legal and illegal) are much more likely than households headed by native-born citizens to use federal means-tested public benefits.”

That contention—that migrants are disproportionately using welfare benefits like food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and General Assistance (GA)—was provided with “no evidence,” the Washington Post noted, adding, “there is no consensus among experts about immigration’s impact on such benefits or on U.S. jobs.”

If adopted, it continues, “the Executive Order fulfills several key campaign promises related to immigration by, among other things, (1) directing the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to compile a report detailing how the federal government will save $100 billion by ensuring that aliens will receive only the public benefit that they are eligible to receive.”

That $100 billion figure is also not supported by any evidence. But it points to the larger goal afoot: to destroy the government safety nets that have evolved over the decades regardless of the human or social impact. The collective consequences of deporting all immigrants who received any public assistance within their first five years here, and revoking federal aid to sanctuary cities (which, in San Francisco’s case, also includes funds for housing, public health, transportation, workforce development and veterans) would be devastating, according to public policy experts.

“President Trump has cast his Executive Orders on immigration as a public safety imperative,” said Donald Kerwin, executive director of the New York-based Center for Migration Studies. “If implemented, the order would impoverish millions of families and U.S. citizen children, at a great cost to the broader community. They would also imperil the housing market and dramatically reduce GDP [the gross domestic product].”

Who Gets Hurt? Women, Children, Democrats

Trump’s war on immigrants and safety nets for the poor should be seen for what it is: nakedly partisan, misogynist and racist.

Take one precursor, the House GOP’s ongoing efforts to cut food stamp funding, which House Speaker Paul Ryan tried again last spring. As Pew Research reported when this gambit arose in 2013, “Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to have received food stamps at some point in their lives—a participation gap that echoes the deep partisan divide in the U.S. House of Representatives, which on Thursday produced a farm bill that did not include funding for the food stamp program.”

More telling, Pew’s study found that “women were about twice as likely as men” to have used food stamps at some point in their lives, “blacks twice as likely as whites” and “among Hispanics, about 22 percent say they have collected food stamps.” A recent U.S. Census study of welfare benefits by sex, age and race—Medicaid, SNAP, Housing, SSI, TANF and GA—found the same pattern. The usage rate for “blacks, 41.6 percent, was higher than that of Asians or Pacific Islanders at 17.8 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 13.2 percent."

“The likelihood of receiving means-tested assistance varied by ethnicity,” the 2015 report said. “In 2012, the average monthly participation rate for Hispanics, 36.4 percent, was higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, 13.2 percent. Similarly, Hispanics were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to receive benefits for at least one month in 2012—45.7 percent of Hispanics participated in a program for at least one month compared with 18.2 percent of non-Hispanic whites… Hispanics were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to be longer-term program participants, with 43.6 percent of Hispanics participating between 37 and 48 months from January 2009 to December 2012, compared with 36.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites.”

These figures show why it is easy for the Trump administration to use non-white immigrant bashing as the path to a wider gutting of safety nets—even though, as the Census report notes, there are larger numbers of poor whites using welfare benefits than other minorities. That’s because, despite differences in percentages, there still are more whites in the U.S. than non-whites.

Of course, the reality of the lives of visa-less migrants in this country is nowhere to be found in Trump’s pronouncements or his staff’s assertions. As the Center for Migration Studies reported this week, “the unemployment rate for the undocumented was 6.6 percent, the same as the national rate in January 2014.” So Trump’s aides' accusations that immigrants are bilking the system don’t add up, because undocumented migrants are working as much as anybody else.

The Legal Pushback

San Francisco’s lawsuit challenging the punitive sanctuary city policy is likely to be an important precedent-setting fight in stopping this Trump juggernaut. The suit rejects Trump’s contention that local police government agencies must become arms of federal immigration police, and challenges the punitive defunding of federal aid for non-cooperation.

Both Trump—as a candidate and in a speech to the congressional Republican Retreat in Philadelphia last weekend—and his Attorney General-Designate, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, have attacked San Francisco and its sanctuary policy. (San Francisco became a sanctuary city in 1989, in response to the thousands of Central American refugees fleeing Ronald Reagan’s wars in the region.) But as even conservative legal bloggers have noted, the city’s 10th Amendment arguments have deep federal judicial support.

“There is some irony in one of the nation’s most liberal cities suing the Trump administration on the basis of federalism precedents authored by conservative Supreme Court justices,” blogged Ilya Somin, a George Mason University Law professor. “Trump’s order is unconstitutional. If allowed to stand, it is likely to be a menace to both constitutional federalism and the separation of powers. For these reasons, among others, I strongly support San Francisco’s position and hope they prevail.”

“This lawsuit is about state sovereignty and a local government’s autonomy to devote resources to local priorities and to control the exercise of its own police powers, rather than being forced to carry out the agenda of the federal government,” San Francisco’s complaint says. “Under the Constitution and established principles of federalism, state and local governments have this autonomy. The Executive Order purports otherwise to wrest this autonomy from state and local governments, and a court order is needed to resolve this controversy.”

The city’s legal arguments go beyond the 10th Amendment, however, to dismantle Trump’s contention that sanctuary cities are causing “immeasurable harm.” While the city has seen no shortage of tensions between its police and black and brown residents, the lawsuit persuasively argues that the city’s 30,000 undocumented migrants need to interact with the city’s many institutions, from schools to health facilities, for the well-being of all San Francisco residents.

“These chapters [sanctuary laws] do not protect criminals or prevent people from being prosecuted for illegal acts,” the suit says. “Instead, they protect children by ensuring that their parents feel safe taking them to playgrounds, to schools, and to hospitals. They protect families from being split up when parents of children born in the United States are deported. And they protect the safety and health of all residents of San Francisco by helping to ensure that everyone, including undocumented immigrants, feels safe reporting crimes, cooperating with police investigations and seeking medical treatment.”

Whether Trump can be stopped from revoking the $1.2 billion in federal aid that San Francisco receives—with sanctuary cities across the nation receiving similar large numbers—is going to be key in determining whether the president's war on immigrants can be halted. It is also going to be pivotal in stopping the Republican far-right’s other long-term goal: defunding and dismantling three-quarters of a century of government safety net programs for the poor.

The rhetoric coming from Trump and his minions might be all about immigrants, but their wider agenda is focused on destroying government social programs serving the poor and needy.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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