Trump is Proposing a Regulation that Could Change the Face of Legal Immigration — by Restricting Low-Income Immigrants

American flags seen through fencing.

Immigrants could be barred from green cards based on use of food stamps or Medicaid.

The Trump administration is proposing a new regulation that would make it extremely difficult for many immigrants to come to the US or receive green cards if they’re deemed likely to use public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.

The draft regulation — which was unveiled by the Department of Homeland Security Saturday night and is expected to be formally published in the Federal Register for public comment on Monday — would overhaul how the government evaluates whether a would-be immigrant is “not likely to be a public charge”, a requirement of many visa categories and green card applications.

The current “public charge” definition is so narrow that the government almost never rejects applications on those grounds. The Trump administration’s proposed new definition, on the other hand, would require a far-ranging inventory of an immigrant’s history and economic prospects. It would give enormous discretion to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, USCIS, officers to reject an immigrant’s application for admission, or for a green card, because the officer feels the immigrant doesn’t make enough money to support a large family or doesn’t have the resources to provide health care for a preexisting condition.

At the heart of the new regulation is a change in how the government looks at public benefits an immigrant has already used or is likely to use. While only cash benefits are considered right now — benefits that only 3 percent of noncitizens use — the new approach would include Medicaid, SNAP, food stamps, Section 8 and other housing benefits, and subsidies for low-income earners in Medicare Part D.

Having used those benefits wouldn’t automatically disqualify an immigrant from being able to get a green card, permanent residency in the United States and the prerequisite to US citizenship. The government says it would not count against an immigrant any benefits used before the rule went into effect — which won’t happen for several more months. And there’s a complicated formula for how much support an immigrant can receive before damaging her chances for a future green card.

The problem is that while the regulation itself is complex — and in some ways more moderate than earlier versions of the proposal leaked to Vox and the Washington Post earlier this year — the message that immigrants are likely to receive is simple: that they shouldn’t use public benefits if they want to stay in the US. Local service providers from public assistance clinics to pediatricians are already seeing this “chilling effect” just based on rumors of the rule and the Trump administration’s generally hawkish tone toward immigrants.

So the newly proposed regulation matters in two different arenas.

If the regulation is finalized in its current form — something advocates will try to prevent by fighting to moderate the proposal during the revision process, or (failing that) to sue to stop it from going into effect — it has the potential, depending on how it’s interpreted on the ground, to change the face of legal immigration to America by sharply reducing family-based immigration from lower-income, less educated people in countries like China, Mexico, and Cuba.

But in the meantime — regardless of how the final regulation looks — immigrants currently in the US, many of whom won’t be affected by the proposal, will likely continue to retreat from social services use out of fear that something might happen to them.

Edited for space by the Islamic Post