Trump Administration Releases Rule Targeting Legal Immigrants Who Use Government Benefits
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Jazmine Ulloa
Immigrants who rely on public benefits for food, housing and medical care could be denied green cards under new rules put forth Saturday by the Trump administration that would in effect limit family-based "chain migration," as the president calls it.
The administration said the rule announced by the Department of Homeland Security would affect about 382,000 people a year, but opponents have said it could have a far greater chilling effect, leading current green card holders to stop using public benefits for fear of being deported.
"Those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a Saturday statement, adding that the new rule would "promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers."
The rule is one of several efforts by the Trump administration to further restrict legal immigration, including limits on those seeking green cards to immigrate to the U.S. and those already in the country on temporary visas trying to adjust their status to stay permanently.
It does not need to be approved by Congress but faces a 60-day public review once published in the Federal Register in coming weeks.
"After DHS carefully considers public comments received on the proposed rule, DHS plans to issue a final public charge rule that will include an effective date," the agency said.
Immigrant advocates and congressional Democrats have already vowed to fight the rule, and political observers said it could become a factor in upcoming midterm election that will determine which party controls Congress.
"I see the Trump administration's hostility towards immigrants as part of a strategy of mass distraction to keep the focus on fomenting outrage directed at Latinos while keeping the focus off of the corruption and graft that are gripping the White House and the GOP," Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), chairman of the Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement.
"Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country's earliest immigration statutes," the nearly 500-page proposal states, insisting that "the availability of public benefits not constitute an incentive for immigration."
Under federal law, those seeking green cards must prove they will not be a burden to the state, or a "public charge." But the administration's new public charge rule would require immigration officials to give added weight to an applicant's potential dependency on public assistance.
Officials would also have to consider certain medical conditions such as mental illness, cancer and heart disease as deciding factors because, according to the new rule, "an alien is at high risk of becoming a public charge if he or she has a medical condition and is unable to show evidence of unsubsidized health insurance."
Elderly immigrants receiving discounted prescriptions through Medicare Part D could be forced to stop participating or lose their legal status.
Applicants who don't qualify for green cards under the new rule could be asked to pay cash bonds of at least $10,000 to avoid being rejected.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which advocates for limits on legal migration, called the new rule "long overdue."
"How wealthy do you have to be to be able to pay your own bills?" Krikorian said. "The point here is, can you support yourself? There's no justification for admitting poor immigrants who need my money and your money to feed their kids.... We've already got enough people we have to support."
Krikorian said we live in a new age of immigration in which the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty -- "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" -- no longer applies.
"Nobody coming over from Sicily to Ellis Island was accepting food stamps," he said.
Until now, someone has been considered a public charge if they rely on government cash assistance for more than half their income. Under the new rule, officials would have to take into account non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance and Medicare prescription drug programs.
"The idea that you can receive food stamps, housing [assistance] and somehow be considered magically self-sufficient because you don't get cash benefits is a lie," Krikorian said. "It's introducing honesty into our immigration policy."
The announcement drew a strong reaction from Democrats and immigration advocates.
Gutierrez noted that Stephen Miller, the president's top immigration advisor, pushed for the new rule in addition to limits on refugee admissions, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and temporary protected status, "restricting the ability of legal immigrants to fully assimilate and apply for citizenship."
Shawn Fremstad, senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said the rule would create a caste system that favors wealthy immigrants and hurts the working class from Mexico, South America and Asia.
"Historically, the public test was all about, can you work, will you work and do you have family here? Are you attached, say, married, to someone who will work? Now it's about, will you work at a high enough wage level in a good job?" he said, which boils down to "are you going to be middle class?"
Those who pay bonds of $10,000 or more must live without a safety net, knowing an accident could land them in the hospital and force them to choose between receiving care or being deported.
"You're doomed to a sort of second-class citizenship," Fremstad said.
Nearly 20 million children in immigrant families could be affected by the new rule, most of them U.S. citizens, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation on a draft of the rule.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the proposed rule a "disgrace."
"Our federal government should not be in the business of penalizing low-income parents, punishing kids, or targeting immigrants who work hard, strengthen our economy, pay taxes, and play by the rules," Garcetti said in a statement.
"Los Angeles communities stand to be hit the hardest by this change. Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors may be unable to see their doctors, keep a roof over their heads, or afford a trip to the grocery store, if they wish to remain in the United States. The leaders in this City and across our country will fight tooth and nail to keep this anti-family policy off the books."
California officials had urged the White House to reconsider the new rule before it was announced due to its disproportionate impact on poor immigrants and their families.
In June, representatives of Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra's office, Gov. Jerry Brown's office and state health officials outlined the potential economic impacts of the proposal to budget officials in Washington.
In July, San Francisco Mayor London Breed sent a letter to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, warning that the regulation would potentially cost her city $129 million to $368 million in benefits as families withdrew from programs.
Chandra Johnson, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Human Services Agency, said officials there were analyzing the new rule and working to dispel misconceptions.
"We are making sure people understand what has and has not changed, and most importantly, that the people who qualify for benefits are continuing to receive them," she said.
It's unclear how many people the proposed rule could affect in California, a state home to roughly 2.3 million people in the country illegally. The 2 million California children enrolled in the Children's Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, a part of Medicaid, make up a quarter of enrollees nationwide.
Rumors of the proposal have already led immigrants to leave Medi-Cal; the state's food stamp program, CalFresh; and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition assistance program, advocates said. Some green card holders have even stopped using nongovernmental programs such as food pantries that do not record participants' immigration status.
Francesca Costa of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank works with CalFresh and said she and her staffers have stopped short of encouraging immigrant residents without legal status to apply for benefits in recent months over the concerns.
"This policy will make people choose between feeding their families now or the possibility of being able to get legal status later," she said.
She called the Trump administration's announcement Saturday "devastating," particularly for the elderly and pregnant women.
Certain categories of immigrants, including refugees, asylum seekers, and Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas would be exempted from the changes, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Legal permanent residents with green cards who apply to naturalize as U.S. citizens would not be subject to the proposed changes.
Of the 41.5 million immigrants living in the United States, 3.7% received cash benefits in 2013, and 22.7% accepted non-cash benefits including Medicaid, housing subsidies or home heating assistance, according to statistics compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The percentages of native-born Americans who get the same forms of assistance are nearly identical. In 2015, 3.4% of 270 million non-immigrant Americans received cash welfare payments, USCIS research found, and 22.1% received non-cash subsidies.
(c)2018 the Los Angeles Times