The Trump administration will make it much more difficult for immigrants to come to the United States or remain in the country if they use or are likely to use housing vouchers, food subsidies and other "non-cash" forms of public assistance, under a new proposal announced Saturday by the Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. immigration laws have long contained provisions limiting foreigners who are likely to be dependent on financial aid and therefore a "public charge." But the proposed changes amount to a broad expansion of the government's ability to deny visas or residency to immigrants if they or members of their household benefit from programs such as Medicaid Part D, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Section 8 housing vouchers.
"Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement, adding that the proposed changes would "promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers."
Homeland Security said the proposal will publish in the Federal Register in the coming weeks, triggering a 60-day public comment period.
"After DHS carefully considers public comments received on the proposed rule, DHS plans to issue a final public charge rule that will include an effective date," the agency said. Homeland Security officials say they are anticipating court challenges to any change.
While the proposal does not include tax credits and other health benefits that were under consideration in previous drafts, immigrant advocates have raised concerns that the rule change would force families to forgo help to avoid jeopardizing their immigration status.
But advocacy groups see the measure as one more attempt by President Trump’s administration to limit legal immigration and reduce the number of foreigners living in the United States. Census data show the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population is at its highest level in more than a century, according to leading demographers.
The changes, if adopted, would potentially affect those applying for immigration visas or legal permanent residency, such as a temporary worker with an expiring visa. It would have little or no bearing on immigrants who entered the country illegally, but it could weigh on the cases of the more than 600,000 with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival benefits if they file for permanent residency.
According to previous draft versions of the proposal, citing U.S. government data, the foreign-born population uses public benefits at virtually the same rate as native-born Americans.
Out of the 41.5 million immigrants living in the United States, 3.7% received cash benefits in 2013, and 22.7% accepted noncash benefits including Medicaid, housing subsidies or home heating assistance, according to statistics compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The percentages of native-born Americans who get the same forms of assistance are nearly identical. In 2015, 3.4% of 270 nonimmigrant Americans received cash welfare payments, and 22.1% received noncash subsidies, Citizenship and Immigration Services research found.
Concerns about public dependency were a significant factor in shaping the current U.S. immigration model's emphasis on family reunification, and requirements that newcomers to have sponsors to assume financial responsibility for them.