WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's administration will make it harder for immigrants in the country legally who rely on government benefit programs, such as food stamps and subsidized housing, to obtain permanent legal status.
The move is part of a far-reaching new policy aimed at altering the flow of legal immigration and shifting to the admittance of wealthier immigrants.
Under the new rule, the financial well-being of immigrants who are in the United States legally on temporary visas will be more heavily scrutinized when they seek a green card. An applicant who speaks English, shows formal letters of support and has private health insurance would be more likely to be approved than someone whose economic situation suggests they would probably need housing vouchers or enroll in Medicaid in the future.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at a White House briefing Monday that his agency is seeking to bring precision to an existing tenet of law -- known as "public charge," or burden on the U.S. -- that has lacked a clear definition.
"Through the public charge rule, President Trump's administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America," said Cuccinelli, evoking his own family's Italian ancestry to characterize previous generations of immigrants as bootstrap-pullers. "This administration is promoting our shared history and encouraging the core values needed to make the American dream a reality."
Immigration advocates, however, warned that vast numbers of immigrants, including those not actually subject to the regulation, may drop out of needed benefits programs because they fear retribution by immigration authorities.
"This news is a cruel new step toward weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: You are not welcome here," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
The Los Angeles-based center said it would file a lawsuit, calling the new rules an attempt to redefine the legal immigration system "in order to disenfranchise communities of color and favor the wealthy."
David Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, criticized the move, saying, "The consequences of this action will be to potentially exacerbate illnesses and increase the costs of care when their condition becomes too severe to ignore."
The move is part of the Trump administration's systematic effort to add new bureaucratic obstacles to the U.S. immigration system at the same time the president wants to put physical barriers along the Mexico border. The administration has slashed the number of refugees admitted to the United States, tightened access to the asylum system and expanded the power of the government to detain and deport migrants who lack legal status.
Analysts say the public charge change could dramatically reduce family-based legal immigration to the United States, particularly from Latin America and Africa, where incomes are generally lower than the rest of the world. It also could lead to an increase in deportations as those present with some form of provisional or temporary immigration status in the United States are denied legal residency.
Advocates for immigrants say the new rule could effectively block immigrants who live in poverty from having a chance at naturalization. Naturalization applications spiked during the 2016 presidential campaign, which some called the "Trump effect" because many immigrants were eager to vote.
Cuccinelli said the change would benefit U.S. taxpayers by selecting better candidates for U.S. citizenship, by ensuring "that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state, which is so expansive, and expensive, frankly."
The rule circumvents earlier, failed efforts by the administration to build support in Congress for a similar "merit-based" overhaul to the immigrant visa system, and it fulfills a longtime goal of senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and other immigration hawks who have sought new tools to reduce immigration levels.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved more than 638,000 green-card applicants in 2018, a five-year high. The U.S. State Department issued an additional 533,000 immigration visas last year to applicants abroad, mostly to the family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
The 837-page rule, whose length Cuccinelli compared to War and Peace, goes into effect in 60 days.
"With one regulation, they are attempting to scratch two itches: One is penalizing immigrants for using public benefits that they are legally entitled to, and the other is cutting legal immigration in half," said Doug Rand, a former official in President Barack Obama's administration and an immigration consultant. "And the way you cut legal immigration in half is by kicking the doors out from the definition of 'likely to become a public charge.'"
Immigration officials said the policy will not be applied retroactively to those who have used benefits in the past; it will apply only those who receive taxpayer-funded benefits after the rule takes effect in mid-October.
The rule also will not apply to the family members of U.S. citizens who receive benefits, immigration service officials said, so a parent of a U.S. citizen would not be deemed ineligible on the basis of the child's receipt of housing assistance or subsidized food. The policy would not apply to humanitarian programs for refugees and asylum recipients.
Other types of public benefits will be excluded from consideration, agency officials said, including student loans, school-based programs like Head Start, and Medicaid for minors and pregnant women.
Immigration service officials said the revised standards would apply to nearly 400,000 people seeking to adjust their immigration status per year, but the agency did not have an estimate of the total number of immigrants who would potentially be denied residency and other benefits.
According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults.
Noncitizen immigrants represent 6.5% of those participating in Medicaid and 8.8% of those receiving food assistance.
Information for this article was contributed by Abigail Hauslohner, Nick Miroff, Maria Sacchetti and Tracy Jan of The Washington Post; by Michael D. Shear and Eileen Sullivan of The New York Times; and by Colleen Long and Jill Colvin of The Associated Press.
A Section on 08/13/2019
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