By Chris Sommerfeldt
Immigration lawyers and advocates saw red Tuesday amid reports that the Trump administration plans to make it all but impossible for legal immigrants to become citizens if they have ever relied on public welfare programs such as the Affordable Care Act.
The overhaul is part of senior White House adviser Stephen Miller's broader plan to reduce the number of immigrants who obtain legal status, multiple people familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The move is still in the planning stages, but the sources said its enactment would make it much more difficult for immigrants to become citizens if they or their family members have ever used Obamacare, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps and other public benefits.
A White House spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.
Critics blasted the planned policy shift as politically motivated and racially charged.
"This will be yet another dangerous, desperate and cynical strategy aimed at kicking immigrants out of America and keeping Republicans in power," said Frank Sherry, executive director of immigration advocacy group America's Voice. "They do so to cynically divide Americans in hopes of mobilizing disaffected white voters and blaming stagnant wages, rising health care costs, defunded schools and threats to Social Security and Medicare on 'the other.'"
The plan would not need congressional approval, since the administration likely intends to implement it by redefining "public charge," an obscure statute of immigration law that allows the U.S. to turn away immigrants deemed a burden to society. The law dates back to the 1800s.
The move could pose the most drastic reform to the immigration system in decades, with experts estimating that as many as 20 million immigrants could be affected. Experts also said the shift would disproportionately affect immigrants working jobs that don't pay enough for them to provide for their loved ones.
"We've seen abuses like this before in our history _ whether it was turning away Jews fleeing the Holocaust or discriminating against Irish Catholics," the National Immigration Law Center said in a statement. "History cannot repeat itself. We can't allow it."
An immigration lawyer practicing in New York City echoed that sentiment.
"We're becoming Germany," the attorney told the New York Daily News.
The Trump administration has already made it known that it intends to curtail legal as well as illegal immigration. The president frequently blasts U.S. immigration laws as "weak" even though public data shows his administration is on track to issue 20 percent fewer green cards in fiscal year 2018 than the Obama administration did in fiscal year 2016.
Meanwhile, advocates and lawyers have complained of crippling delays and administrative gridlock at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of issuing visas and green cards.
A USCIS spokeswoman maintained Tuesday that the agency has not changed the way it process immigration applications.
"USCIS evaluates all applications fairly, efficiently and effectively on a case-by-case basis," the spokeswoman said in a statement. "Contrary to open borders advocates, immigration attorneys and activists, USCIS has not changed the manner in which applications for naturalization have been adjudicated."
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