by Will Racke
The Trump administration will move forward with regulatory changes that could make hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals living in the U.S. ineligible for green cards if they use any one of a wide range of public assistance programs, immigration officials announced Saturday.
The draft regulation expands the definition of “public charge” to include users of many non-cash aid programs such as food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers. The change restores the definition of public charge to its original meaning under a federal law that aims to block the admission of immigrants likely to become a drain on public resources, according to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” Nielsen said in a statement. “The department takes seriously its responsibility to be transparent in its rulemaking and is welcoming public comment on the proposed rule. This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”
Under the current interpretation of immigration law, non-immigrant visa holders who receive cash welfare payments are considered a public charge and are generally ineligible to adjust to permanent resident status. The same standard applies overseas — any potential immigrant who is likely to need cash assistance from the government is inadmissible.
If the proposed regulation takes effect, immigration officers would also factor in the use of several non-cash assistance programs when making public burden determinations. Current and past use of the programs above a certain threshold would be “heavily weighed negative factor” with respect to green card adjudications, according to DHS.
In a statement released Saturday night, DHS identified several cash and non-cash programs included in the expanded public charge definition:
“The public benefits proposed to be designated in this rule are federal, state, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid (with limited exceptions for Medicaid benefits paid for an ’emergency medical condition,’ and for certain disability services related to education), Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), institutionalization for long-term care at government expense, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and Public Housing. The first three benefits listed above are cash benefits that are covered under current policy.”
The new regulation applies to both immigrant visa applicants overseas and non-immigrant visa holders already in the U.S. — including foreign students and guest workers — who want to adjust to permanent status. It will likely affect about 380,000 potential green card applicants each year, according to immigration authorities.
Refugees, asylum seekers and legal immigrants who serve in the military are exempt from the new regulation. Nor would foreign nationals who are victims of natural disasters be penalized for accepting emergency cash assistance.
Groups that favor lower levels of immigration applauded the proposed regulation, saying it was a needed corrective to green card policy that has strayed from the historic definition of what constitutes a public charge.
“This is long overdue,” Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told The New York Times. “This country has defined public charge in a fictional way in order to facilitate high levels of low-skilled immigration. But this is simply a 21st century definition of what public charge is.”
Immigration lawyers and migrant activist groups denounced the proposal. Many said it will force would-be immigrants to make a difficult choice between accepting critical public assistance and remaining eligible to live and work in the U.S.
“If adopted, the rule will create a nationwide health crisis impacting millions, and deter families from seeking vital medical care when they need it the most,” Adriene Holder, an attorney at the New York-based The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement. “It also would affect access by lawfully present non-citizens to basic food, housing, and other forms or support for meeting critical needs. This proposal is radical and dangerous, and wholly against our values and principles as a nation founded by immigrants.”
A 2017 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that immigrant households use cash assistance programs at a slightly lower rate than native households — 5.5 and 6.3 percent, respectively.
However, households headed by a legal immigrant receive non-cash assistance at a much higher rate than native households, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Immigration Studies. An estimated 36 percent of immigrant households receive food assistance and 39 percent are on Medicaid. That compares to about 22 percent of native households receiving food assistance and 23 percent enrolled in Medicaid.
The draft regulation does not require approval from Congress but must go through a public review period before it becomes final.
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Will Racke is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow Will on Twitter.