New US rule would target immigrants who use public benefits

White House says migrants will be blocked from entering the US if they are likely to need public assistance.

U.S. President Trump speaks about shootings in El Paso and Dayton at the White House in Washington
The overhaul is part of US President Donald Trump's efforts to curb both documented and undocumented immigration [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

United States President Donald Trump‘s administration has unveiled a new rule that could deny visas and permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of people who fail to meet income standards or receive food stamps, Medicaid and other public welfare.

The White House said on Monday that migrants will be blocked from entering the country if they are likely to need public assistance and those already in the US will not be able to obtain green cards or citizenship.

“Through the public charge rule, President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting Director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The long-anticipated rule, pushed by Trump’s leading aide on immigration, Stephen Miller, takes effect October 15.

“The principle driving it is an old American value and that’s self-sufficiency,” Cuccinelli said in a Fox News interview published on Monday.

“It will also have the long-term benefit of protecting taxpayers by ensuring people who are immigrating to this country don’t become public burdens, that they can stand on their own two feet, as immigrants in years past have done,” he added.

The overhaul is part of Trump’s efforts to curb documented and undocumented immigration, an issue he has made a cornerstone of his presidency.

He has pledged to build a wall along the US southern border with Mexico – initially saying Mexico would pay for it – and has pressed for changes to immigration laws. Both efforts have made little progress with legislators.

Cut in migration

This rule change on benefits could be the most drastic of all the Trump administration’s immigration policies, experts have said.

Advocates for immigrants have criticised the plan as an effort to cut immigration without going through Congress to change the law.

Under the new rule, more than half of all family-based green card applicants would be denied, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organisation. Some 800,000 green cards were granted in 2016.

The Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center immediately promised to file a lawsuit challenging the changes that take effect in October.

In a Monday statement, the group calls the new rule an attempt to redefine the immigration system “in order to disenfranchise communities of colour and favour the wealthy”.

The new rule is derived from the Immigration Act of 1882, which allows the US government to deny a visa to anyone likely to become a “public charge”.

Immigration officers in recent years have defined visa applicants as a public charge if they are likely to become primarily dependent on government assistance.

Most immigrants are ineligible for the major aid programmes until they get green cards but the new rule published by the Department of Homeland Security expands the definition of a public charge that stands to disqualify more people.

Applicants will now need to show higher levels of income to get a visa and the rule greatly expands the list of government benefits that would disqualify them from obtaining US residency.

Broader concerns

Immigrant advocates have expressed concern the rule could negatively affect public health by dissuading immigrants from using health or food aid to which they or their children are entitled.

Other parts of the Trump administration have taken or are contemplating similar approaches to penalise immigrants’ use of public assistance.

The State Department changed its foreign affairs manual in January 2018 to give diplomats wider discretion in deciding visa denials on public-charge grounds.

In the 2018 fiscal year, which ended last September, the number of visas denied on those grounds quadrupled compared with the previous year.

The Justice Department is also considering a regulation that would dramatically expand the category of people who could be subject to deportation on the grounds that they use public benefits.

Source: News Agencies