Feb 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The real impact of Trump's "public charge" immigration rule

Illustration of someone taking a standardized test in the shape of the American flag

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Effective Monday, the U.S. will begin blocking more foreigners from obtaining green cards and some visas based on the Trump administration's guesses about what kind of people they'll become and whether they may ever burden taxpayers.

Why it matters: The long-expected "public charge" rule effectively creates a wealth and health test, which could keep hundreds of thousands of people from making the U.S. their legal home.

  • Technically, the public charge rule targets immigrants that U.S. officials predict are likely to rely on certain government benefits at any point in the future.
  • In reality, the new regulations could make it harder for some people with middle incomes to come to the U.S. as well as those who are sick or impoverished.
  • The act of applying for a permanent green card itself will be counted against an applicant by the Department of Homeland Security.

"It's the administration saying let's get as close as we can to the 1924 act that restricted immigration from everywhere but Northern Europe," said Doug Rand, co-founder of Boundless Immigration who formerly worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House.

Factors that could potentially hurt an immigrant's chances at a green card:

  • Not having an income that is 250% of the poverty line, or $76,700 for a family of five. That means some middle-income families would be hit, since an income of $58,300 for a family of five is considered a middle-level income, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Being older than 61 or younger than 18.
  • Having medical issues, especially if uninsured.
  • Not having private health insurance.
  • Not being a full-time student or employed.
  • Not speaking English proficiently.
  • Having a mortgage, car loan or credit card debt.

Immigrants who have used a certain amount of the specified benefits over three years, beginning Monday, will almost certainly be denied a green card or admission into the U.S.

The big picture: After three years of leaked drafts, proposed rules and a Supreme Court ruling, the administration tomorrow will begin penalizing all green card applicants and some visa applicants whom they consider likely at any point in the future to use benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing vouchers or Medicaid.

  • The DHS and State Department rules radically redefine what it means to be a "public charge," experts said.
  • Immigration officers will now consider a rubric of positive and negative factors the government has decided are relevant to determine whether immigrants are likely to ever rely on certain public benefits.
  • The decisions will be largely left to individual officers' discretion, experts say. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the DHS agency in charge of legal immigration, said it "disagrees with the assertion that the rule provides too much discretion to adjudicators."

Between the lines: Almost nobody already in the U.S. on a short-term visa is eligible for public benefits, so the vast majority of them won't be affected.

  • The new rules are not to apply to humanitarian immigrants such as refugees, asylum-seekers and human trafficking victims.

But anyone else applying for a green card — plus an unpredictable number of the more than 12 million annual tourists, business travelers, international students, and temporary workers traveling from abroad — will now have to fill out extra paperwork with personal details which could determine whether they are approved.

By the numbers: As many as 400,000 people every year could be denied green cards or visas because of the new rules, Rand estimated.

  • In 2018, the State Department instituted a limited version of this guidance for consular officers. That fiscal year, there were four times as many public charge denials as in FY 2017.

What they're saying: The new information now required to apply for green card and some visas is extensive, detailed and personal.

  • Many law firms and lawyers who represent businesses and employees are concerned it could violate state or local privacy laws, Jesse Bless, American Immigration Lawyers Association's federal litigation director, told Axios.
  • "This is all part of this invisible wall that the administration is putting up," Bless said. "They're making it so onerous that employers or individuals that can sponsor family members do not do so."

What to watch: There are more legal challenges making their way through the courts, which could disrupt the implementation of the new rules.

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