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Immigration Change Addresses Nonexistent Problem, Muñoz Says


A new rule put forward by the Trump administration will make it less likely that immigrants who use public safety net programs or who might in the future will be approved for a green card or be allowed to stay in the United States. Yesterday, I talked about that with Ken Cuccinelli. He's acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services. And I asked him whether the policy change reflects the values outlined in "The New Colossus." That's the Emma Lazarus poem featured at the Statue of Liberty. The iconic verse begins (reading) give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Here is part of Cuccinelli's response.


KEN CUCCINELLI: Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

MARTIN: That rewrite of Emma Lazarus' poem and the change itself generated a strong response from immigration advocates, including Cecilia Munoz. She served as a senior staff member in the Obama White House and is now a vice president at the New America think tank here in Washington. Cecilia, thanks so much for being back on the show.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You spent some time on Twitter yesterday writing about Ken Cuccinelli's remarks in our interview and the policy change in general. Can you just summarize what your thoughts were?

MUNOZ: Yeah. The first thing we know is that immigrants use public benefits less than natives of the United States. So there's no problem that needs to be solved here with this new policy. But the impact of the new policy really will have two parts. One is that there will be many, many fewer immigrants and they are likely to be from parts of the world like Latin America and that people in the United States, Americans, the people who want to reunite with, say, their spouses or bring their spouses in with a visa, will be less likely to get services that they need out of fear that that will affect their ability to bring in a loved one like a spouse. So it's a terrible outcome. This is really about changing who comes and how many people come, which is something the Trump administration has been wanting to do. And they're using this tool to do it.

MARTIN: You also in that Twitter thread cited surveys suggesting that fewer immigrants applying for public benefits - we're talking about food stamps or Medicaid - that that number has dropped over just fears of being viewed as a public charge, even if these particular people wouldn't fit into that category, that there is a potential chilling effect.

MUNOZ: Yes. We know that there has been a chilling effect just as a result of the conversation about this rule. We know that people in the United States are using fewer benefits. They're not doing things like getting medical services or seeking nutritional programs for themselves and very importantly for their kids out of fear that that's going to affect their ability to bring in a loved one from another country as an immigrant. So it is already causing harm. And we expect that harm to get worse as this rule becomes final.

MARTIN: You also wrote that the rule change is a way to bait the left into talking about poverty and need. Can you explain that?

MUNOZ: By doing this, the Trump administration has us all talking about, well, but what about people who are poor, what about people who are in need? That's true, but that's because immigrants are human beings. They're not immortal. They're just like the rest of us. They have periods in between jobs where they might need a little bit of help. They get illnesses like the rest of us. They have accidents like the rest of us. This is essentially saying you have to be immortal. You have to be superhuman if you - if there's an immigrant in your family that you want to bring into the United States. We are better than that. We have been better than that as a nation. And this takes us back to some of the darker times in our history when we were attempting to choose immigrants by race. We've done that in our history in the United States. And this administration is trying to do it again.

MARTIN: Has the Trump administration, frankly - the last couple of years, as you have watched the change in immigration policy, has it caused you to reflect differently about your own time in the Obama White House working on immigration? I mean, the same group, the advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza where you once worked, dubbed Barack Obama the deporter in chief back in 2014.

MUNOZ: Yeah. You know, what I'd say about that is that in the Obama administration, we worked mightily to affect how we enforce the law and to make sure that we actually applied a strategy. And that strategy, with respect to who we removed, was focused on people who were very newly arrived and weren't in the asylum process and people who were convicted of serious crimes. And, you know, the folks who are making the argument now that that was excessive really should put forward a different approach. The conversation should not be about how - about whether we enforce the law. It should be about how and which is exactly what we tried to effect. I think it's possible to do better. We should be having a conversation about how to do better but not a conversation about whether to enforce the law.

MARTIN: Cecilia Munoz - she was a senior adviser under President Obama on immigration and now a vice president at the New America think tank. Thank you so much for your time.

MUNOZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.