New Trump rules could deny green cards to immigrants on public assistance

U.S.-Mexico border
New Trump administration rules could end up denying green cards to immigrants if they use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.
(Denis Poroy / Associated Press)

The Trump administration took one of its most aggressive steps yet on Monday to target legal immigration, publishing new rules that could deny green cards to immigrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance, and potentially making it more difficult for some to get legal status in the U.S.

Federal law already requires those seeking green cards and legal status to prove they will not become a “public charge,” or a burden on the U.S. But the new rules, made public Monday, outline a broader range of programs that could disqualify them. Officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now weigh public assistance along with other factors such as education, household income and health to determine whether to grant legal status.

Ken Cuccinelli, the controversial acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at the White House on Monday that the new rules helped ensure that those seeking to enter or remain in the U.S. were “self-sufficient” and not relying on public resources. He rejected criticism that the Trump administration is targeting low-income immigrants.


“We certainly expect anyone of any income to stand on their own two feet,” Cuccinelli said. “A poor person can be prepared to be self-sufficient. Many have been throughout the history of this country, so let’s not look at that as the be-all and end-all.”

President Trump has kept his effort to crack down on illegal immigration in the spotlight and central to his reelection campaign in 2020. But the new rules represent a significant escalation of a quieter but farther-reaching effort to reduce legal immigration, with Cuccinelli and others led by immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller.

The rules, which will take effect in mid-October, are likely to have a wide impact in states with large immigrant communities, like California, where many families are made up of citizens and noncitizens alike.

Advocates have vowed to block the new rules from taking effect, and Congress could attempt to halt their implementation through legislation. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) has introduced one such measure in the House.

“Our message to our state’s strong, diverse immigrant community is simple,” said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. “California has your back.”

Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, associate professor in UCLA’s department of Chicana and Chicano studies, said Trump’s new policies run directly against the concept of immigrant integration that propels the state’s and nation’s economy forward.


Immigrant integration is an important public benefit to the state, he said. Labor participation rates among immigrants are extremely high, and public assistance is an important gateway to reaching integration, he added.

“What California’s economy needs is to integrate immigrants as quickly as possible,” he said. “As soon as immigrants become legal and become citizens they dramatically increase their productivity and ability to add to the economy.”

Since the Trump administration first proposed the rules in October 2018, they have already had a chilling effect, with fear leading families of both U.S. citizens and noncitizens to no longer access critical federal assistance.

According to a December survey by the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization, nearly 14% of 1,950 adults who were foreign-born or living with foreign-born family members reported avoiding participating in public benefits in the last year because of their concerns about future legal status.

Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, said the new rules could be particularly harmful to children. In 2017, the rate of children without insurance rose, and the number of those enrolled in Medicaid has fallen substantially.

The new rules, Alker said, would “lead to significantly poorer health and life outcomes for millions of low-income children, especially in communities of color.”


While Citizenship and Immigration Services is charged with administering the legal immigration system and related benefits, Cuccinelli frequently appears on cable news and posts from his official government account railing against immigrants without permission to enter or stay in the U.S., painting them broadly as criminals and fraudsters.

Miller reportedly helped push out Cuccinelli’s predecessor at Citizenship and Immigration Services for what he viewed as foot-dragging on the new rules.

In fact, immigrants make up a small percentage of those who get public benefits. Many are ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status.

Advocates worry the rules will scare immigrants into not asking for help. And they are concerned the rules give too broad an authority to decide whether someone is likely to need public assistance at any time, giving immigration officials the ability to deny legal status to more people.

Laurel Lucia, director of the healthcare program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, says the new policy could have a damaging effect on the California and U.S. economies. Many in California who already have a green card or have become citizens may decide to dis-enroll from public benefits like Medi-Cal or CalFresh out of fear for what the policy may mean for themselves and family members, causing a chilling effect on the economy, she said.

“When these Californians dis-enroll, that means fewer federal dollars coming into the state supporting not only our healthcare system but our whole economy,” Lucia said.


In a 2018 study by Lucia, Ninez Ponce of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Tia Shimada of the California Food Policy Advocates, the authors found the healthcare sector would suffer the biggest economic blow from policy changes similar to those announced Monday. The study projected lost federal support for Medi-Cal at $1.19 billion and CalFresh at $488 million, and also projected that up to 17,700 California jobs would no longer exist — 47% of them in the healthcare sector.

Nationwide, 544,000 people apply annually for green cards, on average, with about 382,000 falling into categories that would be subject to the review as laid out under the new rules, according to the government.

Doug Rand, a former Obama administration official who worked on immigration regulations, said the new rules would be much wider-reaching, applying to more than 1 million green-card and visa applicants within the U.S. each year, plus some 13 million more outside the country.

Guidelines in use since 1999 referred to a public charge as someone primarily dependent on cash assistance, income maintenance or government support for long-term institutionalization.

Under the new rules, the Department of Homeland Security has redefined a public charge as someone who is “more likely than not” to receive public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. If someone has two benefits, that is counted as two months. And the definition has been broadened to include Medicaid, housing assistance and food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Following publication of the proposed rules last fall, Homeland Security received 266,000 public comments, including from lawmakers and mayors — more than triple the average number for a rule change at the agency, and a record, according to advocates.


The agency did make a series of amendments to the final rules as a result. For example, women who are pregnant and on Medicaid or who need public assistance will not be subject to the new rules during the pregnancy and for 60 days after the birth of the baby.

The Medicare Part D low-income subsidy won’t be considered a public benefit. And public benefits received by children up until age 21 won’t be considered. Nor will emergency medical assistance, school lunch programs, foster care or adoption, student loans and mortgages, food pantries, homeless shelters or disaster relief.

Green-card hopefuls will be required to submit three years of federal tax returns in addition to a history of employment. And if immigrants have private health insurance, that will weigh heavily in their favor.

Active U.S. military members are exempt. So are refugees or asylum seekers, and the rules would not be applied retroactively, officials said. But the Trump administration also has moved to drastically reduce asylum in the U.S.

According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults.

The new public assistance threshold, taken together with higher requirements, will make it more difficult for immigrants to qualify for green cards, critics say.


“Without a single change in the law by Congress, the Trump public charge rules mean many more U.S. citizens are being and will be denied the opportunity to live together in the U.S. with their spouses, children and parents,” said Ur Jaddou, a former Citizenship and Immigration Services chief counsel.

The new rules come at a time of increased criticism over Trump’s hard-line policies and his rhetoric, which opponents say have helped provoke deadly violence. On Aug. 3, 22 people were killed and dozens injured in a mass shooting in El Paso. The shooting suspect told authorities he targeted Mexicans in the attack.

Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said of the new rules, “This policy denies a permanent, secure future in this country to anyone who isn’t white and wealthy.”

UCLA’s Hinojosa-Ojeda said Trump’s policies had the potential to create an entire class of people that would not be able to reach immigrant integration, leaving them less likely to be productive. Legalization increases immigrant income by more than 20% in the couple of years after they gain legal status, Hinojosa-Ojeda said, and leads to a 50-60% increase in income in the five to 10 years after they become citizens.

”The biggest users of social services are non-immigrants, something which seems to be lost in the government narrative of public assistance that propels a view that the policy defends native workers,” Hinojosa-Ojeda said. “This is an attempt to divide the ‘worthy’ and the ‘unworthy,’ putting the immigrants in the ‘unworthy’ category. We would be locking out people from pathways forward.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.