By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Saturday said it would propose making it harder for foreigners to come to the United States or remain there if they have received or are likely to receive public benefits such as food aid, public housing or Medicaid.
The proposed regulation from the Department of Homeland Security would expand immigration officers’ ability to deny visas or legal permanent residency to aspiring immigrants if they have received a range of taxpayer-funded benefits to which they are legally entitled, such as Medicaid, the Medicare Part D low-income subsidy, Section 8 housing vouchers and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is commonly known as food stamps.
U.S. immigration law has long required officials to exclude a person likely to become a “public charge” from permanent residence. But U.S. guidelines in place for nearly two decades narrowly define “public charge” to be a person “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence,” either through direct cash assistance or government-funded long-term care.
The Trump administration’s proposal is a sharp departure from current guidelines, which have been in place since 1999 and specifically bar authorities from considering such non-cash benefits in deciding a person’s eligibility to immigrate to the United States or stay in the country.
The changes would apply to those seeking visas or legal permanent residency but not people applying for U.S. citizenship.
“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement to Reuters. “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.”
If a foreigner is receiving one or more of the public benefits laid out in the proposal when they apply for a visa or residency, that would be a heavily weighed negative factor in their determining their eligibility to come to or remain in the United States.
If an immigrant is deemed inadmissible because of the new rule, they might be eligible to post a bond, no less than $10,000, to come into the United States.
The overhaul is part of President Donald Trump’s efforts to limit both legal and illegal immigration, an issue he highlighted during the 2016 presidential campaign and that has become an important topic in the 2018 congressional elections. Trump has advocated ending a visa lottery programme and some kinds of family-based immigration but many of his desired changes would require congressional action.
The proposed regulation, which does not need to be approved by Congress, will be published in the Federal Register in the coming weeks, officials said, the first step towards final adoption. The public has 60 days to comment on the proposal and the agency must consider all submitted comments and could change the regulation before the final version is adopted, likely not for at least several months.
The proposal would affect more than 382,000 people per year who obtain permanent residence while already in the United States, DHS said. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people living abroad obtain U.S. permanent residence each year through the State Department, which would likely change its own regulations to match those of DHS when the proposal becomes final.
Immigrant advocates have criticised the administration’s plan, which was first reported by Reuters in February when it was in an early draft form, saying that it is an effort to cut legal immigration without going through Congress to change U.S. law. They also believe the rule could negatively affect public health by dissuading immigrants from using health or food aid to which they or their children are entitled.
Even the proposal published on Saturday anticipates some of those impacts. If immigrants forego enrolling in public benefits because of the new regulation, it could lead to “increased rates of poverty and housing instability” and “worse health outcomes,” the proposal states.
Although the administration’s proposal would be a major change, the version released on Saturday is narrower in scope than previous leaked drafts. It will not penalise immigrants for using home heating aid; the widely used earned-income tax credit; WIC, a federal programme that feeds poor pregnant or nursing women and their children; and Head Start, which provides early education to low-income children. Previous versions of the rule would have penalized immigrants for using those benefits.
The regulation also would consider only the use of certain benefits by the individual applicant, and not their dependents, including U.S. citizen children. Previous versions of the regulation would have taken into account the use of benefits by an applicant’s children, even those born in the United States, which immigrant advocates said would force people to pull their children out of needed health and food programs.
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Sandra Maler and Bill Trott)