Updated Sep 26, 2018 - Politics & Policy

Trump's welfare crackdown targets immigrants

Data: Migration Policy Institute; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios. Note: CHIP is not included in the proposal at this time. Census data could not separate CHIP from Medicaid.

A new rule proposed by the Trump administration over the weekend would disqualify some immigrants from visas and green cards if they use — or are likely to use — federal safety net programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers.

Why it matters: There are millions of immigrants in the U.S. who use these programs, according to the Migration Policy Institute's analysis of Census data, and the group estimates that 31% of all non-citizens would be impacted if the rule is finalized. Those applying to be admitted to the the U.S. would also face increased scrutiny of their financial stability and prospects.

Between the lines: There are three key ways the proposed rule would impact the immigrant community, Migration Policy Institute senior fellow Mark Greenberg told Axios:

  1. Legal immigrants: It would be increasingly difficult for legal immigrants who qualify for the specified public benefits to obtain green cards. For some, a denial could even lead to their deportation. Jason Boyd, policy counsel at American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Axios that the rule would "endanger the well-being of families throughout the nation while placing all too many of them at risk of separation."
  2. New immigrants: Immigrants applying for U.S. visas would face tougher tests determining whether they are considered a "public charge." Under current policy, only immigrants who would be primarily dependent on government assistance are considered a public charge, but the proposed rule would greatly broaden that definition.
  3. The chilling effect: Greenberg told Axios he expects the rule to discourage many immigrants from using public benefits they may need out of fear of losing their legal status.

The other side: The Trump administration sees the change as promoting self-sufficiency among immigrants, according to the proposed rule. Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted in announcing the proposal that under federal law, "those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially.”

It's impossible to know exactly how many immigrants could end up being denied a green card or visa due to the many factors that would determine who is considered a public charge. And immigration experts worry it could lead to inconsistent decision making.

“The proposed rule would prove broadly destructive... It would also raise to new heights the Trump administration’s invisible wall, further shutting out legal immigrants from the country."
— Jason Boyd

The proposal was softened from earlier, leaked versions. At this point, it does not include CHIP, which provides health coverage for low-income children. The proposed rule asks for comments on whether CHIP should be included in the final version, however.

The exceptions:

  • Many immigrants aren't even eligible for certain public benefits until they have had a green card for a certain number of years, which means the rule wouldn't apply to them, writes Vox's Dara Lind.
  • The rule will also not be applied retroactively — only to immigrants who enroll in social safety net programs after the final rule is implemented.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers are also exempt, and immigrants can obtain benefits for their U.S. citizen children without penalty.
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