Green Card Denials Possible for Immigrants Who Use Food Stamps, Housing Vouchers

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington.

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, speaks during a briefing at the White House, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Washington. AP Photo/Evan Vucci


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Under a rule published Monday by the Trump administration, immigrants could be denied green cards based on their use or potential use of federal public assistance programs.

U.S. immigration officials will penalize prospective immigrants’ use of public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid when weighing green cards applications under a new rule announced Monday by the Trump administration.

The “public charge” rule released by the Department of Homeland Security would expand the type of public benefits that could be counted against an immigrant applying to become a permanent legal resident. Under the rule set to take effect on Oct. 15, immigration officials will consider an immigrant’s use or potential use of benefits programs—including Medicaid, housing assistance or food stamps—when deciding whether or not to issue a green card. Officials will weigh these factors along with other considerations like a person’s age, health, financial assets, English proficiency, and education.

“The Trump administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), during a press conference at the White House.

A wide variety of groups, including immigrant advocates, health care workers, housing program associates, and local elected officials, have spoken out against the rule, arguing it will disadvantage poor immigrants and discourage people who are legally entitled to public benefits to not enroll in or leave federal programs. The ripple effect of immigrants being afraid to use federal benefits could end up potentially costing state and local governments more money to give people needed help, some argued.

Approximately 544,000 people apply for green cards each year.

When vetting green card applicants, immigration authorities currently ask individuals to prove they will not be a burden on the United States by asking them to meet certain income or family sponsorship guidelines. They can also consider whether an individual receives cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Under the new rule, a person will be considered a “public charge” and can be denied a green card if he or she relies on one or more public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. 

During Monday’s press conference, Cuccinelli was unable to provide any details on expected savings to taxpayers through the rule.

Individuals who are receiving government benefits are likely already green card holders, therefore one of the greatest potential problems the new rule creates for state and local governments stems from individuals’ withdrawal from federal safety net programs based on fear it could affect family members’ green card applications. 

Researchers from the Migration Policy Institute said the chilling effects will be felt most acutely in states like California and New York, which have large immigrant populations and offer inclusive public benefits policies. While only 198,000 non-citizens residing in California would be at risk of receiving a public charge determination under the current guidelines, upwards of 1.9 million people in the state are currently receiving at least one public benefit that would put them at risk of a public charge determination under the new rule, according to the institute’s analysis. 

“When families stop receiving SNAP benefits it increases the burdens on local food banks and pantries and emergency service providers,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

State and local government agencies and local nonprofits that serve immigrant populations were among those that submitted comments opposing the rule. 

In Arizona, officials from the Maricopa Integrated Health System warned that the federal rule change would be costly to state and local governments and detrimental to public health. The public teaching hospital and safety-net health-care system said it provides a disproportionate amount of unreimbursed healthcare and received approximately $32 million in reimbursements through federal programs that recipients might leave over concern about the rule. “Patients forgoing public insurance programs and seeking care at hospitals without insurance would strain the tight budgets of hospitals like ours,” wrote Maricopa Integrated Health System President Steve Purves in a letter sent to DHS in December. 

Officials from the San Francisco Housing Authority warned that the rule would steer immigrant families away from applying for housing assistance—increasing their chances of becoming homeless. 

“Immigrant families, faced with the threat of separation, will be forced from housing assistance programs under the proposed public charge rule, causing increased rates of homelessness and unstable housing among an already vulnerable population,” wrote Barbara Smith, the housing authority’s acting executive director in a December letter to DHS. 

Even before the rule was made public Monday, researchers found that the proposal was already discouraging non-native residents from applying for and using social safety net programs.

“About one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported ‘chilling effects,’ in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a non-cash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card status,” Urban Institute researchers wrote in a brief published earlier this year amid public discussion about the proposal. “This figure was even higher, 20.7 percent, among adults in low-income immigrant families.”           

At the White House media briefing held Monday, Cuccinelli pushed back on accusations that the new rule would result in people who are entitled to government benefits forgoing them. In the case of a prospective immigrant whose child is a U.S. citizen accessing public benefits, Cuccinelli said that would not negatively impact the immigrant’s application.

“The receipt by a citizen in the household of public benefits will not affect the consideration for a particular alien,” he said.

Cuccinelli said applications would be assessed based on the “totality of circumstances” and that “no one factor alone will decide an applicant’s case.” The new rule would not be applied retroactively to green card applications submitted before the rule goes into effect.

Refugees and asylum seekers would not be subject to the rule.

Immigration advocates decried the rule, saying only the wealthy will be able to obtain green cards under the new system.

“The rule essentially puts a price tag on obtaining lawful permanent residency in the United States, shifting it away from family-based immigration toward one restricted to people who are already relatively well-off or highly skilled when they enter the country,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Trump administration has been mulling over the rule to restrict legal immigrants’ reliance on public benefits for months as part of a broader plan to restrict immigration to the U.S.

Following Monday’s announcement, the National Immigration Law Center announced its intention to file a lawsuit to block the rule from taking effect.

“This news is a cruel new step toward weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: you are not welcome here,” said Marielena Hincapié, the center’s executive director.

The State Department has already begun relying more heavily on public charge rejections for those who apply for visas to visit the United States, according to data published last week by Politico. The State Department rejected 12,179 visa applications on “public charge” grounds between Oct. 1 and July 29, according to the news outlet. In fiscal 2016, it rejected only 1,033 applications on those grounds.

Cuccinelli said the rule was not meant to discriminate against any particular group and frequently referenced his Italian-American family’s own journey to the U.S.

“There is not a reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them,” he said.   

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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