White House senior adviser Stephen Miller is openly berating top members of the Trump administration for failing to implement “public charge,” a proposed rule change that would deny residency status to immigrants who rely on public benefits.
“You ought to be working on this regulation all day every day,” Miller reportedly shouted during a meeting last month in the White House situation room, according to The New York Times. “It should be the first thought you have when you wake up. And it should be the last thought you have before you go to bed. And sometimes you shouldn’t go to bed.”
In the weeks that followed the meeting, Miller has led a purge of top employees at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) including former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Acting Deputy Secretary Claire Grady, and Secret Service Director Randolph D. Alles. Other agency officials, including Francis Cissna, head of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and John Mitnick, the department’s general counsel, have been warned by the White House they may be next.
Under the proposal, announced last fall, DHS requires immigration caseworkers to take into account immigrants’ reliance on public benefits, like Section 8 housing or food assistance, when considering applications for immigration visas (like work visas or family-based visas) or green cards (permanent residency).
Miller and President Donald Trump have both made it clear that any administration official who does not follow through with the administration’s plans to implement immigration policies that are legally questionable and ethically reprehensible has no place in the White House. Last week, Trump also reportedly told border agents to deny entry to asylum seekers, an act that would violate U.S. law, and offered to pardon acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan if he were sent to jail for breaking the law.
There is already a public charge rule on the books and it has its roots in a dark period of American history, having first surfaced the same year Congress adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1882, Congress also adopted another law that banned “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The test was initially aimed preventing the immigration of Irish Catholics to the United States and was later used by immigration officials to keep out Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany, along with LQBTQ immigrants, individuals with disabilities, and even unmarried women.
The Trump administration has proposed expanding that criteria to include anyone who receives or is likely to receive “any government assistance in the form of cash, checks or other forms of money transfers, or instruments and non-cash government assistance in the form of aid, services, or other relief, that is means-tested or intended to help the individual meet basic living requirements.”
As ThinkProgress previously reported, if U.S. citizens were forced to play by the same rules, only one-third of Americans would qualify.
The Trump administration has already begun implementing public charge; it’s just not at the rate Miller would prefer. According to Reuters, roughly 13,500 immigrant visas were denied by the State Department last year on the basis that the applicants might become “public charges” because they used government public assistance programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP). Other government programs that could deem someone to be a public charge include Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicare subsidies, or rental housing assistance.
Reuters profiled Arturo Balbino, a Mexican construction worker living in Texas. Balbino believed he had a strong case for a visa, with a U.S. citizen wife and child, and a letter from his employer guaranteeing him an $18-per-hour job. In spite of this, during his visa interview, officials brought up his family’s past use of Medicaid and SNAP and his application was denied.
According to Reuters, some immigration attorneys believe consular officers are denying visas even when applicants fulfill legal requirements to prove they will be financially independent. Balbino’s father-in-law, for example, provided a legal affidavit of support providing financial evidence that he would not become a “government burden.”
The public charge regulation received over 200,000 comments from the public since it was first introduced. It will likely be months before the change is fully evaluated and implemented. The State Department, however, is able to deny visa applications on the basis of a back-door manual change in January 2018 that awarded diplomats more discretion to deny visas on the basis of public charge.