Such is the case for the US’s millions of undocumented immigrants living in poverty or on the streets. Forced by their legal status into unstable, informal jobs—the cornerstone of most immigrant poverty—and barred from the social services that help other impoverished Americans escape rock bottom or catch them before they fall, poverty for undocumented immigrants is a deeper, more inescapable pit than what many Americans imagine to exist within our borders.
Take Paula, for instance. An undocumented immigrant from Central America, Paula (a pseudonym) is homeless, unemployed, and pregnant, temporarily living in a shelter that doesn’t provide food. Her status and her pregnancy prevents her from working. I have been helping translate conversations between her and homeless outreach professionals, who cannot direct her towards any publicly funded social services but suggest a few organizations that may be able to help her. She returns empty handed; they asked for her social security number. Trying to take even the most basic steps to avoid hitting rock bottom and birthing a child into extreme poverty, Paula’s feet are tied.
While obviously not the sole US demographic living in poverty, undocumented immigrants are certainly the largest group whose poverty is so systemically and unapologetically preserved. Even the US’s most rudimentary (and flawed) anti-poverty programs—Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, SNAP food stamps, TANF welfare checks, low-income housing—are withheld from undocumented immigrants. In tough times, why should the state waste limited resources on people whose mere presence here violates Federal law?
We should provide them services because they are our neighbors, and no matter what we do, their problems are our problems.
By and large, most immigrants’ motives include social mobility. The U.S. ensures social mobility not just by instilling in its people a rigorous work ethic, but by installing safety rails on workers’ path to success. Social services assure that all individual progress is not lost in the pitches and contractions of the U.S. economy.
Hard work characterizes most immigrant experiences, and immigrants characterize much of our county’s hardest work, because work is all that immigrants have. For undocumented immigrants who receive virtually no social services, and for other non-citizens who only receive partial assistance, social mobility is a slippery slope on which the slightest slide can send people back to serfdom.
The vulnerability of undocumented immigrants is usually discussed in terms of deportability, with fair reason. But their vulnerability doesn’t end there: barred from most social services, undocumented immigrants are hypersensitive to economic shifts. The public provisions our government has made for capitalism’s creative destruction of jobs and industries are insufficient at catching people before they plummet into poverty, immigrants especially. Undocumented immigrants are often first to fall to the bottom, and last to recover, with no hand-outs or hand-ups extended their way. And it is at the bottom that we most often depict, decry, and deport our undocumented immigrants.
In fact, our country’s worst stereotypes about immigrants—that they lack money, take jobs, spread crime, all else that Trump prophesied—only approach reality when our government withholds from them services, residency, and dignity. Poverty in the U.S. is often condemned as an avoidable consequence of state neglect in need of resolution; immigrant poverty, though caused and perpetuated by even more extreme state neglect, is treated as an accidental import, an invasive species, or a condition inherent in immigrants’ nationality. This is far from the truth: we create immigrant poverty, blame the victims, and brand them with stereotypes.
The biggest immigrant stereotype that remains baseless even in the face of government neglect is that immigrants “drain our social services.” Perhaps is this stereotype were even remotely true, it would purge the other stereotypes of their scattered pieces of state-sponsored evidence.
What is at stake when we continue to ignore or accept these levels of immigrant neglect, with that worn-out excuse of “they’re illegal, they’re not our problem”?
By restricting basic services to undocumented immigrants, we tolerate extreme poverty within our borders. From poverty spring so many social ills—hunger, homelessness, violent crime, substance abuse, unplanned pregnancy, labor abuse, urban blight—that even if extreme poverty is only directly experienced by some, it affects whole communities. Restricting social services to only “lawful” U.S. citizens and residents does little good because undocumented immigrants are our neighbors, our colleagues, and the backbone of our economy. The government’s failure to recognize the mixed citizenship statuses of its most needy (and most needed) communities and its subsequent restriction of social services stagnate the processes of upward social mobility and community empowerment.
Providing for undocumented immigrants is also a question of international relations, of how one nation chooses to support another nation’s citizens when that nation is unable or unwilling to do so. Impoverished undocumented immigrants must either be granted the same poverty-beating social services that our most desperate citizens receive, or they must receive the same foreign development aid that we pump towards allied governments in the developing world (governments who, might I add, are in a far worse position to milk this aid’s full potential than our own agencies on on our own soil).
Treating undocumented immigrants as undeserving illegals in need of eradication has proven a huge waste of time, money, human capital, and hatred. For the good of our nation’s economy and soul, we must either treat impoverished undocumented immigrants as people of our country in dire need of services, or a foreign population whose development is directly tied to our national welfare. Mass poverty in the U.S. will not be alleviated as long as extreme poverty—so often immigrant poverty—is treated as unrelated, unpreventable, or ignorable.