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In September, the Trump administration announced new rules on identifying legal immigrants as potential “public charges,” making it harder for people to get green cards if they use public benefits like Medicaid. Advocates say this is likely to pose a particular threat to immigrants with disabilities.

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As the historian Douglas C. Baynton writes, public charge rules have always been a threat to immigrants dismissed as too disabled to be full contributors to the country. From the start of U.S. immigration restrictions in 1882, one of the major reasons for preventing people from entering the country was that they would be “unable to take care of themselves without becoming a public charge.” (Another common reason was that they were Chinese.) The point, Baynton writes, was to screen out people with mental illness, or with intellectual or physical disabilities.

Over the decades, the rules got tighter. A 1907 law denied entry not just to people who were actually unable to care for themselves but anyone with a physical disability that “may affect the ability” to earn a living.

Baynton profiles the striking case of 30-year-old Moische Fischmann, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1913. Fischmann had been working in his native Russia as a blacksmith ever since the age of 14. He had relatives in New York with savings to help him out, and he had a job lined up. He was also fleeing a country wracked by pogroms against Jews that posed a clear threat to his life if he returned. And yet, an immigration board, and then an official to whom Fischmann appealed his case, chose to bar him from the country—because he was deaf and mute.

Baynton writes that it was never clear that people like Fischmann would have trouble earning a living, but U.S. society had decided to classify them as essentially social dependents. This paralleled the culture’s attitude toward women, who were also categorically classified as dependents even though many worked to support their families.

While public education was generally understood as a right and an investment, educating deaf children was seen as charity. American public schools provided no accommodations to serve this group. That meant that while a family with hearing children faced no special burden in educating their children, a deaf child would be considered a public charge if their parents couldn’t afford full tuition at a private school.

Ultimately, Fischmann’s case had an unusual happy ending. After being deported and ending up as a war refugee in Europe, a philanthropist helped him return to Ellis Island. Due to wartime travel restrictions, officials ended up being forced to admit him.

For most deaf people seeking a place in the U.S., however, things didn’t go so well. In 1924, the nation began requiring prospective immigrants to apply at local consulates, making it easier to exclude anyone marked as disabled before they ever boarded a ship to America. Many critics of the Trump administration’s new rules believe they will make it even easier to discriminate against immigrants with disabilities.


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Sign Language Studies, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Summer 2006), pp. 391-415
Gallaudet University Press