Immigration is an elective policy of a sovereign nation. It should benefit America and never create a public charge. That notion is one of the most foundational principles of our country. It dates back to colonial times and has been enforced by the states since the founding and then by the federal government when it fully reclaimed immigration in the 1880s. That immigrants shouldn’t be a public charge is still the law on the books, yet it’s rarely enforced. Now that the Trump administration is seeking to enforce the law, suddenly the Left is screaming about denying immigrants their rightful citizenship.
NBC published a report predicting that any week now, Stephen Miller will convince President Trump to sign off on a policy denying citizenship to those immigrants on welfare. In other words, he will be the first president in recent years to follow the letter and spirit of immigration statutes. The media is ready with a barrage of sob stories with no regard for the harm to American citizens.
Our history, tradition, and law: Immigration should only benefit the nation
The notion of immigrants coming here and obtaining public assistance would have been foreign to our Founders, even if they could have envisioned a welfare state for those already here. In 1813, Madison said emphatically to Morris Birkbeck, “… it is not either the provision of our laws or the practice of the Government to give any encouragement to emigrants, unless it be in cases where they may bring with them some special addition to our stock of arts or articles of culture.”
As I note in Chapter 6 of my book, this is why, already in the 1600s, the northern colonies, and later on the southern colonies, adopted public charge laws denying entry to “paupers.” Even after the Constitution was already signed but still in the process of being ratified, the Continental Congress passed a law in 1788, pursuant to the Articles of Confederation, urging states to pass laws “preventing the transportation of convicted malefactors from foreign countries.” A number of states followed suit and banished those viewed as criminals or impoverished.
During the debate over the Naturalization Act of 1790, Madison declared, “I do not wish that any man should acquire the privilege [citizenship], but such as would be a real addition to the wealth or strength of the United States.”
In the 1820s and ’30s, New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland (the “border states” of those days) passed laws mandating inspections of landing vessels at the ports to weed out those who would likely be a public charge. In City of New York v. Milne (1837), the Supreme Court deemed New York’s regulation of ships transporting immigrants preventing “multitudes of poor persons” from coming “without possessing the means of supporting themselves” as constitutional and not infringing upon the foreign commerce power of the federal government.
There can be no mode in which the power to regulate internal police could be more appropriately exercised. … Can anything fall more directly within the police power and internal regulation of a state than that which concerns the care and management of paupers or convicts or any other class or description of persons that may be thrown into the country and likely to endanger its safety, or become chargeabl[e] for their maintenance?
If this is how our early political figures thought of state powers to reject public charge (and certainly criminals), how much more so the power of the federal government to protect the whole of the union? Massachusetts passed a similar law, in 1837 when immigration began to increase, requiring an inspection of all aliens aboard a ship and denying the right to land to any passenger thought to be indigent unless the master of the vessel posted bond to ensure that no such “indigent passenger shall become a city, town, or state charge within 10 years.”
While the federal government was able to regulate immigration any time after 1808, pursuant to Art. I Sec. 9, it only regulated naturalization and left the laws of entry to the “border states” like New York and Massachusetts for many of the early years. However, even during that time, since most people would only emigrate en masse with support of the government, the State Department often used diplomatic tools to block public charges (see the Chinese Exclusion case).
Once Congress reclaimed the full power to regulate entry in 1882, these state public charge laws were codified into federal law almost verbatim. The laws passed in the 1880s and 1890s not only barred the entry of those who would constitute a public charge (still the law on the books), but held the owner of the vessel that transported those aliens liable for the cost of their return trip and their temporary stay on American soil. These laws were so strictly enforced that even inadmissible aliens who came during World War I (and couldn’t return to Europe) were only given temporary harbor if relatives paid for their entire stay (see Kaplan v. Tod, 1925).