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Trump administration ties green cards and citizenship to public assistance

Kadia Tubman
Reporter

The Trump administration announced new regulations Monday that would make it harder for legal immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps or housing assistance to obtain green cards or U.S. citizenship.

“President Trump has once again delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce long-standing immigration law,” acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli said during a Monday press briefing at the White House. “Through the public charge rule, President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful in America.”

The public charge rule requires immigration officials to take into account whether an immigrant is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” when applying for a visa or adjustment to permanent resident status. Exempted from the regulation are refugees and asylees, trafficking victims and certain members of the U.S. armed services.

The rule is based on the premise that immigrants burden American taxpayers by accepting government benefit programs. It has been in effect since the passage of the 1996 welfare reform bills, which limited immigrants’ access to public benefits and restricted green cards for those dependent on monetary support from the government.

“The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state, which is so expansive and expensive,” Cuccinelli said.

Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks about immigration policy at the White House. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Thanks to the welfare reform legislation, many immigrants have since chosen to forgo public assistance, according to a 1999 report from the nonpartisan think tank Urban Institute and a 2018 report by the Migration Policy Institute. The new rule would expand the number of programs taken into account to assess an immigrant’s socioeconomic status to include use of cash and housing assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and Medicaid for people over the age of 21.

Government assistance not considered as a “negative factor” under the rule includes school lunch programs, nutrition and noncash benefits like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid for pregnant women, and the early education program Head Start.

But the Department of Homeland Security will also consider “how an alien’s age, health, family status, assets and resources, financial status, education, and skills impact the alien’s likelihood at any time of becoming a public charge,” the final draft of the new rule reads.

A “totality of the circumstances” will be taken into account by USCIS officers “to objectively determine whether an applicant is likely at any time in the future to receive public benefits,” Cuccinelli said. “No one factor alone will decide an applicant’s case.”

“There’s no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them,” Cuccinelli responded when asked by a reporter to speak to claims that the rule was targeting Latino immigrants and other immigrants of color.

“The administration is very careful not to use racial or demographic language in the rule, but you don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to realize who this is going to impact,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House as assistant director for entrepreneurship. “When you look at people who are already here applying for green cards, particularly based on family ties, it's mostly Latinos.”

Overall, Cuccinelli said, the rule change is to ensure the public charge is “clearly defined by regulation” and “encourages and ensures self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come or to stay in the United States.”

But Rand said that “the majority of this rule is concerned with restricting future flows of immigration based on criteria that have absolutely nothing to do with using taxpayer-funded social safety net programs,” calling the rule “an absolutely radical attempt to reshape the immigration system.”

“This rule creates basically a points-based immigration system where you get points off for not being working age,” he said. “You get points off for not speaking English. You get points off for not making a comfortable middle-class salary. You get points off for not being in perfect health and on and on.”

During the press conference, Cuccinelli repeatedly referenced his own family lineage, noting that his Italian grandfather sponsored relatives to come to America and helped them learn to “speak English well enough to work.”

“My family worked together to ensure that they could provide for their own needs and they never expected the government to do it for them,” he said.

But activists disagree with Cuccinelli's characterization of immigrants who seek public assistance.

“Everybody who comes to us, they want to work,” Jina Krause-Vilmar, president and CEO of Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps recent immigrants and refugees rebuild their careers in the United States, told Yahoo News. “They want to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes in order to succeed. They do have dreams about what they want to do with their careers and their career goals, and they're just not able to achieve that for legitimate reasons.”

Krause-Vilmar said a large population of immigrants who have sought out her organization for support initially lived below the federal poverty line but now “earn $55,000 a year and they're contributing collectively about $252 million in tax revenue and consumer spending per year.”

This proves, she said, “an individual's current circumstance, especially conditions of poverty and employment or accepting public aid, is not indicative of their future professional promise or their economic contributions. The public charge rule, as it has come out, fails to recognize that.”

The new rule goes into effect on Oct. 15, and “will cover for USCIS almost 400,000 people 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,” said Cuccinelli.

But Rand estimates the rule would affect far more people. “It's going to apply to every single person applying not just for a green card, but for an extension of a temporary visa as well as all the people applying from abroad who are going to be subject to this rule as implemented by the State Department. So this could affect 14 million people,” he said.

“Never before in American history have we said you must be middle class in order to come to this country,” Rand added.

“Throughout history, Americans and legal immigrants have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to pursue their dreams and the opportunity of this great nation,” Cuccinelli said, adding, “We certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet.”

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