Trump administration to make it harder for low-income immigrants to stay

Green card applicants who spent a year on Medicaid, for instance, could be denied under the new rule unveiled Monday.
Image: President Donald Trump leaves the White House on Aug. 7, 2019.
President Donald Trump leaves the White House on Aug. 7, 2019.Zach Gibson / Getty Images

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By Jane C. Timm

The Trump administration introduced a new rule Monday making it harder for low-income, legal immigrants who receive food stamps or other forms of taxpayer-funded assistance to stay in the country legally.

The rule would require immigrants applying for a change in immigration status (like a green card) or those seeking to come here to prove that they are unlikely to ever need public assistance, and can bar immigrants who had received assistance above a certain threshold from being approved.

Pressed on whether or not the rule would undermine the words emblazoned on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty — "give me your tired, your poor" — acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli disagreed.

"This rule will cover, for USCIS, almost 400,000 a year whose applications to become legal permanent residents will include a meaningful analysis of whether they're likely to become a public charge or not. I do not think by any means we're ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty," he said.

Those analyses could include reviews of credit scores, assets, education, whether an applicant has private insurance they pay for without tax credits, and more, boosting the application of wealthier immigrants. These considerations are just one part of an immigrant's application for a new or different visa or residency status.

The rule, which has been in the works since last year, would favor wealthier applicants in the American immigration system, and could dramatically reshape the nation's immigration system, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank which studied the proposed rule last year.

"We certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet," Cuccinelli said.

Immigration law bars immigrants likely “to become a public charge” from changing or renewing immigration status, but did not previously define “public charge.” A 1999 rule limited green cards for immigrants who were dependent on cash benefits, but did not take into consideration health care or other nonmonetary benefits.

This rule, however, defines public charge as any immigrant who personally benefits from one public benefit for 12 months during a 36-month period. Receipt of two public benefits in one month counts as two months, the rule notes.

The rule will go into effect in mid-October, and is expected to save federal and state governments an estimated $2.47 billion each year as immigrants and their families opt out of public benefits, the final rule states.

There are a number of immigrants who are exempt to the rule, including military members, their spouses and children, asylum-seekers and refugees. Immigrants whose status change is being denied solely because of their risk of becoming a public charge can pay a bond — a minimum of $8,100, adjusted for inflation — to receive legal resident status.

Receipt of some benefits before the rule goes into effect in mid-October will not count negatively against applicants, Cuccinelli said, and benefit use will be considered in the totality of an application.

After the public comment period, there were several changes made to the rule: pregnant women and children under the age of 21 are exempt from the rule and applicants applying for public aid solely for the benefit of another are not considered recipients of such aid.

"DHS received 266,077 comments on the proposed rule, the vast majority of which opposed the rule," the final draft of the rule noted.

Still, Cuccinelli advocated strongly for the rule, pitching it as a win for Trump.

"President Trump has once again delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce long-standing immigration law," he said.

Shannon Pettypiece contributed.