The Trump administration has proposed a new rule denying visas and green cards to legal immigrants who are likely to claim government benefits such as food stamps or housing vouchers.
The move could force millions of low-income immigrants to choose between vital support and their hopes of US residency, advocacy groups have warned.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on Saturday the planned change would allow officials to disqualify immigrants’ applications based on receipt of federal assistance such as food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers or Medicare and Medicaid drug subsidies.
Such benefits would be considered “a heavily weighed negative factor” in granting green cards for permanent residency or in issuing visas for temporary stays.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said the proposed rule would “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”
Immigrant support groups said many people frightened of being denied green cards and visas may withdraw from public aid programmes even at the risk of losing their home or going hungry.
Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, condemned the move as “an inhumane attack on the health and wellbeing of so many families and communities across the country”.
She added: “This proposed rule… makes clear that the Trump administration continues to prioritise money over family unity by ensuring that only the wealthiest can afford to build a future in this country.”
Todd Schulte, president of the immigration reform group FWD.us, said: “This policy will cost the United States in the long run by limiting the contributions of hardworking immigrants who could become legal residents, and no one is better off because of it.”
Coming less than seven weeks before midterm elections, the move could help galvanize voters who support the Trump administration’s crackdown on legal and illegal immigration.
According to a report in The New York Times, Donald Trump’s top immigration adviser Stephen Miller has pushed “hard” for the new rule over the past few months.
The DHS plan marks a sharp departure from current guidelines, in place since 1999, which specifically prevent authorities from considering benefits in deciding a person’s eligibility to immigrate to the US or stay in the country.
The new rule would apply to those seeking visas or legal permanent residency, but it would not affect people anyone applying for US citizenship.
The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal. The department must consider all comments and could make changes before its introduction in the coming months.