Opinion | Trump’s New Wall to Keep Out the Disabled
At the signing ceremony for the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, President George Bush observed that the legislation had much in common with the fall of the Berlin Wall the year prior. The new law “takes a sledgehammer to another wall,” Bush remarked, “one which has for too many generations separated Americans with disabilities from the freedom they could glimpse, but not grasp.” Our current president, infamous for mocking Americans with disabilities and unraveling the social safety net, plans to rebuild that wall, putting America’s promise of freedom again further out of reach for people with disabilities.
The Trump administration’s proposed regulation, released in early October, would unfairly harm people with disabilities and their families in their efforts to live permanently in the United States. The “public charge” regulation would apply to immigrants already on the lawful road to citizenship, including applicants for permanent residence (a “green card”) living in the United States, and individuals outside of the United States, such as family members of American citizens seeking admission to the United States. While the concept is older than today’s modern immigration law, President Trump’s regulation would radically expand it in dangerous ways. (Public charge is a term used to describe a person deemed to be primarily dependent on government assistance.)
Harkening back to the dark history of anti-immigration policies, the public charge proposal spells out five “heavily weighed negative factors” that would make having a disability a strong basis for denial. In typical Trump fashion, the proposal privileges wealth, fast-tracking individual applicants who can provide evidence of annual incomes 250 percent above the federal poverty line, which for a family of four is about $63,000 annually. Thus, the proposal’s fundamental injustice of deliberately excluding people with disabilities, who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, is compounded by the abuse of equating wealth with worth.
The proposal also attacks some immigrants with disabilities and their families already living in the United States who are already contributing to the culture and economies of American communities. As The Times has reported, the regulation would put a person’s lawfully obtained immigration status at risk if he or she uses — or even applies for — Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), Section 8 housing assistance or other public programs.
The regulation would also consider whether a person has private insurance that covers all of his or her health care costs, again rigging the system against people with disabilities. Private insurers don’t cover community living supports like meal preparation, household care and maintenance, and help with bathing, eating, dressing and other routine activities. For many people with disabilities, Medicaid is the only financing available for those basics, but the public charge regulation would mean that using Medicaid could put immigration status at risk. No one should have to choose between the basic needs of life and living in the United States with loved ones.
Mr. Trump’s assault on the disability community isn’t confined to immigrants. All Americans with disabilities — immigrants and citizens alike — would be harmed by the public charge regulation, because of its consequences for the health care and personal care provider work force. According to the Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, about one-fourth of direct care workers in America are immigrants. And about 40 percent of all direct care workers meet their own basic needs with help from Medicaid, SNAP or other public programs. If finalized, the public charge regulation will mean fewer people able to provide the care that seniors and people with disabilities need to live full lives and contribute to their communities.
Children would also be hit especially hard by the public charge regulation — again, citizen and immigrant alike. One-fourth of children in America have at least one immigrant parent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Though most are not immigrants themselves — an overwhelming majority were born in the United States — they would suffer the denial of basic needs alongside their parents. Children eat at the same table as their parents, and they sleep under the same roof, so if parents are too afraid to apply for help, their children will be no less hungry and no less homeless.
The proposal also weighs childhood as a “negative factor” because children are not self-sufficient. Since children with disabilities are often judged as incapable of growing into self-sufficient adults, they would be considered a public charge more often than their nondisabled peers.
Fortunately, the proposal has not yet been approved. And those who oppose this attack on American families with immigrants, including people with disabilities, can work together to stop it.
All Americans have a right under the law to speak our minds on federal regulations. And the law requires the Trump administration to consider what we say. Our organizations are taking a stand against the public charge regulation and urging others to speak out, too, by leaving a comment on the proposal before the Dec. 10 deadline.
At the Americans With Disabilities Act signing ceremony nearly 30 years ago, President Bush remarked that America had inspired other countries, with pledges to right historical wrongs with legislation of their own to open doors for people with disabilities. As Mr. Bush said then, the A.D.A.’s “passage has made the United States the international leader on this human rights issue.” And this leadership has not been maintained without a fight. The disability community has proved time and again — in fighting to protect the law, in pushing back against judges who don’t believe in bodily autonomy — that we will meet every attack with equal force to preserve our rights and our dignity.
We must continue to push back. Mr. Trump’s proposed public charge regulation says people with disabilities aren’t valuable members of American society. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that Americans with disabilities and our families are a powerful force that will fight back when he mocks or marginalizes. We must recommit to being a country where everyone is valued, where people with disabilities can fully contribute and where all can thrive.
Katherine Perez is the executive director at The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation, and Elena Hung is the president and a co-founder of the advocacy group Little Lobbyists.
Disability is a series of essays, art and opinion by and about people living with disabilities. The entire series can be found here.
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