DHS reportedly weighing rules targeting immigrants who use public benefits

The new rules would impact hundreds of thousands of non-citizens seeking permanent residency.

Immigrants receive assistance with their U.S. citizenship applications at a Citizenship Now! event on February 3, 2018 in New York City. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
Immigrants receive assistance with their U.S. citizenship applications at a Citizenship Now! event on February 3, 2018 in New York City. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

The Trump administration is reportedly considering making it harder for immigrants who use public assistance to become permanent residents, Reuters reported on Thursday. It’s the latest move in a line of actions meant to crack down on documented immigration, in addition to targeting undocumented immigrants.

According to a proposal obtained by the outlet, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is set to propose new rules allowing immigration officers to scrutinize and consider the use of certain taxpayer-funded benefits when weighing permanent residency applications. Non-U.S. citizens living in the United States pay taxes and are legally permitted to use many public services. But the new DHS rules would seek to measure that usage, holding any perceived reliance against applicants.

“Non-citizens who receive public benefits are not self-sufficient and are relying on the U.S. government and state and local entities for resources instead of their families, sponsors or private organizations,” the document reads. “An alien’s receipt of public benefits comes at taxpayer expense and availability of public benefits may provide an incentive for aliens to immigrate to the United States.”

Among those benefits are subsidies for utility bills and assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps; the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which assists pregnant people and their children; and a number of programs assisting with transportation vouchers, education for low-income children, and even winter heating.

Health care obtained through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would also be subject to increased scrutiny. Emergency and disaster relief would reportedly be excluded, as well as free and reduced-price school lunches, Medicare, and disability insurance.

Applicants’ credit reports, along with a significant amount of personal information, could also be obtained and used by the government in order to evaluate individual usage of public benefits.

The changes would likely impact hundreds of thousands of people. Permanent residents applying for citizenship would not be subject to the rules, but people applying for permanent status would be considered a “public charge” if they depend on “any government assistance in the form of cash, checks or other forms of money transfers, or instrument and non-cash government assistance in the form of aid, services, or other relief.”

The DHS rules are the latest indicator that the Trump administration intends to crack down on immigration at every level.

The White House has repeatedly targeted undocumented immigrants, railing against sanctuary cities and ramping up deportation measures. In September, President Trump rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) directive, leaving 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children in limbo. The administration has also rescinded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from a number of countries — including Haiti, El Salvador, and Nicaragua — leaving hundreds of thousands of people forced to return to countries facing severe domestic turmoil.

The White House has also pushed for a “merit-based” immigration system favoring highly-skilled immigrants, citing the diversity visa lottery program as one example of a system favoring “the worst” immigrants. Experts have criticized and contradicted those claims, as the diversity visa program has merit-based components and makes up a small sliver of the U.S. immigration system more broadly.

But highly-skilled immigrants and those looking to immigrate through official channels have still suffered under Trump, despite the president’s supposed desire to make room for more documented immigration. In April, the president unveiled an executive order targeting the H-1B visa, which goes to highly-skilled workers across a number of sectors, including technology, research, and academia. Last month, sources told McClatchy that DHS had implemented new policies targeting H-1B applicants with pending green card applications. Hundreds of thousands of would-be immigrants — the overwhelming majority of them Indian citizens — could be impacted if those rules take effect, subjecting them to longer wait times, increased scrutiny, and the possibility of being sent home in the interim period.

DHS officials have yet to issue a formal comment on the reported new rules impacting applicants for permanent residency. It is unclear when the policy would take effect, should it be approved.