IF THE Trump administration has its way, hundreds of thousands of legal, law-abiding immigrants struggling to make their way in this country will have their hopes for a green card dashed if they accept government benefits for which they qualify. That means an immigrant family that falls on hard times and accepts noncash benefits such as housing vouchers or food stamps, even briefly, could be denied permanent legal residence in the United States. So much for welcoming the tired, poor and huddled masses.
The proposal is the administration’s latest assault on immigrants who are here legally, to complement the offensive it has waged against the undocumented. In President Trump’s world, that distinction is increasingly without a difference, as White House officials scour federal rules in search of any available means to drive down the nation’s foreign-born population, now at its highest level in a century.
In this case, the new blueprint would radically shift the government’s definition of immigrants classified as “public charges,” meaning burdens to public resources. That classification would make them ineligible for many visas and green cards, which confer nearly every privilege of citizenship except voting in federal elections. And it would do so in a rulemaking end run around Congress, which would have no say in modifying or approving the new policy.
Under existing rules, in force for nearly two decades, the government could deny green cards to immigrants who had depended on or were thought likely to depend on cash benefits such as welfare under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Under the proposed new rules, the range of those deemed inadmissible as public burdens would be massively broadened to include immigrants who had received an array of noncash benefits including Medicaid, food assistance, prescription drugs under Medicare Part D and other forms of assistance.
That would affect families, students, employees and visa-holders already in this country applying to stay permanently — a population the administration estimates at some 382,000 annually. (Other studies suggest much higher projections.) It would also likely apply to green-card applicants abroad if they were thought likely to need public benefits.
The proposed rule is punitive, mean-spirited and self-defeating. This nation has been built with huge contributions from immigrants who arrived with nothing, needed a hand for a while and eventually prospered. The new rule would force legal immigrants to choose between advancing their prospects for a green card, and availing themselves of benefits that would keep them and their children well fed, well sheltered and in good health — a choice the proposal itself acknowledges by saying it may result in “increased rates of poverty and housing instability” and “worse health outcomes.” Even existing green-card holders may balk at using benefits, for fear their future status might be jeopardized.
Previous drafts of the rule were even more extreme, punishing immigrants by classifying them as burdens if they used home heating assistance, a federal program that helps feed pregnant or nursing women and their children, or even the widely used earned-income tax credit. The version announced this past Saturday is sufficiently draconian, however, to dovetail with the administration’s relentless crusade against immigrants of nearly every variety.