Donald Trump was in the federal courthouse in Manhattan, and very happy to be there. It was 1988, and his wife, the former Ivana Zelníčková of Gottwaldov, Czechoslovakia, was one of 142 immigrants just sworn in as U.S. citizens. By then, the Trumps had been married for eleven years and had three children. “It was about time I became an American,” Ivana Trump told me, a reporter on the court beat, after a joyful ceremony that, as she put it, “made it hard not to cry.” Donald Trump added: “It’s a great country, and that’s where a great woman should be.”
The oath ceremony is a nearly religious ritual in which the American gospel—the good news of freedom and democracy—is preached to the newest members of the choir. “By your presence, America is vastly enriched,” the judge told the new Americans. He was not referring to their net worth.
That lesson has eluded Donald Trump the president: his administration has just changed the standard for citizenship in a way that, as the New York Times headlined, “could alter the face of the American immigrant.” A new rule redefines who is likely to become a “public charge,” and is therefore ineligible for citizenship. It changes the process to put much more emphasis on an applicant’s income.
The Trump administration portrays this rule as no more than the continued application of federal laws that have been in effect since 1882, but the emphasis on income is a significant shift that works to the disadvantage of working-class immigrants, especially those with large families. Catholics of all political backgrounds should take note that these laws—based on the idea that immigrants often mooch from the taxpayers—are rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry.
They trace back to nativist attacks on impoverished Irish Catholic immigrants in Massachusetts and New York during the famine years of the 1840s. Both states, rife with anti-Catholic bias, passed laws to bar anyone who might become a “public charge.” These passed into the first comprehensive federal immigration law, enacted in 1882, barring “idiots, lunatics, convicts, and persons likely to become a public charge.” The new rule notes that the “public charge” barrier has continued in federal immigration law ever since—but it’s obvious that millions of hard-working immigrants have been granted citizenship over the years despite being dirt-poor. That may no longer be the case.