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Leaked Trump Order Targets Legal Immigrants Who Use Government Benefits

If signed, the executive action would put green-card holders in danger of deportation and could burden state and local agencies.

Immigrants wait in line at a clinic in Texas.
(AP/Eric Gay)
After signing several executive orders aimed at deporting undocumented immigrants, President Donald Trump may target legal immigrants next.

A leaked executive order would drastically expand the number of public programs that are off-limits to legal immigrants who aren't citizens, such as green-card holders. If found using them, they could face deportation and their sponsors -- usually a family member or employer -- would have to reimburse the federal government for unauthorized use of those benefits.

Immigrants can currently be deported for using cash welfare or long-term institutionalized care. Under the draft order, they could be deported for using any federal benefit given "on the basis of income, resources or financial need." That could include food stamps, Medicaid, free or reduced school lunch, home heating assistance and college financial aid. 

"This is really a major change for social welfare institutions and the social welfare system," said Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

State and local agencies manage many of those programs and could be responsible for reporting immigrants' use of them. That would create new administrative burdens for counties, said Jack Peterson, assistant legislative director for the National Association of Counties (NACo). Peterson's group is also worried about the order having a negative impact on public health.

"Some of our members have expressed concerns that ... [this] could have the [effect] of driving folks that need care into the shadows," he said. If parents stop taking their children to get immunizations, for example, it "not only has impacts for them and their lives but for broader community at-large."

In the past, NACo has taken the position that legal noncitizens should be eligible for federal health benefits, and that the federal government should reimburse counties for the cost of health care provided to legal noncitizens. The group is meeting for its annual conference in late February, and Peterson said Trump's recent immigration policies are on the agenda. 

The Washington Post first reported on the draft order Jan. 31. Since that time, the Trump administration hasn't commented on it. So far, though, most of the leaked executive orders have turned out to be virtually the same.

The leaked order is short on important implementation details, such as what role state or local agencies could be expected to play. But if it's up to states and localities to report immigrants to the federal government, they may resist.

One of Trump's earlier orders threatens to defund so-called sanctuary cities that don't cooperate with federal efforts to deport undocumented immigrants. Dozens of cities, however, have since pledged to protect undocumented immigrants, and San Francisco filed a lawsuit over the issue. In several states, including Washington, Democratic officials are working to shield data from the federal government that it could use to deport someone.

“We joked about how we need to build a wall around Washington to keep D.C. out,” said Washington state Sen. Guy Palumbo to The Seattle Times.

The leaked order also calls for the federal Office of Management and Budget to study the estimated savings of restricting more benefits to legal immigrants. Such a report would likely require data collection by state and local agencies. 

The order would also prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving federal child care tax credits, even if their kids were born in the U.S. and are citizens. 

Congress reduced immigrants' access to public benefits in 1996 with the welfare reform law. But in the past two decades, it restored or increased access to some public benefits, such as food stamps and health insurance for children who are legal permanent residents. The Trump order would reverse that trend.

According to the order, immigrants -- both legal and undocumented -- are more likely to use public benefits. That's true in general but not when taking income into account. Research by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the right-leaning Cato Institute and the left-leaning Center for American Progress have all found that low-income immigrants are less likely to use public benefits than low-income U.S.-born individuals.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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