Trump policy favors wealthier immigrants for green cards

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Melissa Golden / The New York Times

Maria, who is five months pregnant, came to the United States from Colombia. She is in the United States on a tourist visa while she applies for a green card with her husband, a United States citizen, as a sponsor. They are enrolled in supplemental nutritional program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, in order to afford food and prenatal care. The Trump administration announced that it will penalize legal immigrants who rely on public programs, such as food stamps and government-subsidized housing, as part of a sweeping new policy to slow legal immigration into the U.S. and reduce the number of immigrants who are granted permanent legal status.

Tue, Aug 13, 2019 (2 a.m.)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Monday broadened his assault on the nation’s immigration system, issuing a new rule targeting legal immigrants who want to remain in the United States but whose lack of financial resources are judged likely to make them a burden on taxpayers.

The new regulation is aimed at hundreds of thousands of immigrants who enter the country legally every year and then apply to become permanent residents. Starting in October, the government’s decision will be based on an aggressive wealth test to determine whether those immigrants have the means to support themselves.

Poor immigrants will be denied permanent legal status, also known as a green card, if they are deemed likely to use government benefit programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing. Wealthier immigrants, who are designated as less likely to require public assistance, will be able to obtain a green card.

Officials said the program would not apply to people who already have green cards, to certain members of the military, to refugees and asylum-seekers, or to pregnant women and children. But immigration advocates warned that vast numbers of immigrants, including those not actually subject to the regulation, may drop out of programs they need because they fear retribution by immigration authorities.

“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 executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

She added: “It will have a dire humanitarian impact, forcing some families to forgo critical lifesaving health care and nutrition. The damage will be felt for decades to come.”

Trump has long insisted that the United States should welcome immigrants based only on the “merit” they demonstrate. And he has disparaged the idea of letting immigrants into the United States from poor and underdeveloped nations, which he once described in the most vulgar of terms.

Monday’s rule is an attempt to enact Trump’s priorities. It embraces people who have financial means while shunning immigrants who are struggling. That is certain to affect the flow of immigrants who have sought refuge in the United States from impoverished places in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who announced the new regulation at the White House, said it would allow the government to insist that immigrants who come to the country were self-sufficient and would not be a drain on society.

“The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state which is so expansive and expensive,” Cuccinelli said.

Under the new rule, the financial well-being of immigrants who are in the United States legally on temporary visas will be more heavily scrutinized when they seek a green card. Immigration officials will consider an immigrant’s age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status and education. But the officials will be given broad leeway to determine whether an immigrant is likely to be a user of public benefits, to deny them a green card and to order them deported.

The rule has been the top priority of Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration agenda. Miller has repeatedly pushed administration officials to finish drafting the regulation, known as the public charge rule, at one point telling them that he wanted them to work on nothing other than that until it was completed.

L. Francis Cissna, the former director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, had resisted the rush to finish the rule, drafts of which were several hundred pages long and extremely complicated. But Cissna was forced out of his position this year and replaced by Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and immigration hard-liner who shares Miller’s view that immigrants should not rely on financial support from the government.

The complex regulation, which is scheduled to go into effect in 60 days, would give the Trump administration a powerful new tool to narrow the demographic of people who come to live and work in the country. According to the new rule, the United States wants immigrants who can support themselves, not those who “depend on public resources to meet their needs.”

The ability of immigrants to support themselves has long been a consideration in whether they were granted the right to permanently live and work in the United States. But the Trump administration’s new move has made assessing the financial resources of immigrants a more central part of that decision-making process.

An applicant who speaks English, shows formal letters of support and has private health insurance would be more likely to be approved than someone whose financial situation suggests they would probably need housing vouchers or enroll in Medicaid in the future if they were given a green card.

Immigrants who have incomes equal to or greater than 250% above the official poverty line — about $64,000 for a family of four — are not likely to be declared public charges, according to the new regulation. Immigrants with incomes far less than that who are seeking green cards will have to prove that they will not require public benefits in the future.

Over time, administration officials hope that the tough policy will shift the composition of the American immigration system by favoring wealthier immigrants.

Asked about the 1903 plaque on the Statue of Liberty that invites “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” Cuccinelli said: “I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty. We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world.”

But immigration advocates reacted with anger at the announcement, describing it as a cruel policy that they said was already causing immigrants around the country to abandon housing and medical benefits because they were concerned about the impact that using them might have on their immigration status or the status of someone in their family.

“Shame on the Trump administration for expanding a rule with racist roots in a shameful ploy to rig the immigration system for the wealthy,” said Cynthia Buiza, the executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center. “We thank all who stood up against the administration’s hate-filled agenda, and we will continue to fight for our values of community, compassion and common humanity.”

The fear touched off by the new rule is illustrated by Maria, a 28-year-old woman from Colombia who is five months pregnant and asked that her last name not be used because she feared reprisals by U.S. immigration officials. A couple of weeks ago she reached out to her lawyer for advice after she started seeing coverage of the draft version of the public charge rule. Her husband, a childhood friend from Colombia, is a U.S. citizen, and she is in the United States on a tourist visa while she applies for a green card with him as a sponsor.

Maria’s husband, a high school teacher, had been off work during the summer break, forcing them to enroll in supplemental nutritional program for women, infants and children, known as WIC, in order to afford food and prenatal care. Though the new rule specifically does not penalize pregnant women for seeking such assistance, she said she fears that it could be used against her anyway. She said she wished she could stop accepting the help.

“I can’t,” said Maria, who worked as an industrial engineer in Colombia. “Right now we need to use it,” she said, adding, “Whatever happens, the most important thing is that the baby is OK, right?”

How many people the rule will affect is in dispute. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not conduct an “in-depth” analysis to estimate that, according to a senior administration official, who asked for anonymity to brief reporters on the rule.

But in the Federal Register, Department of Homeland Security officials estimated that more than 382,000 immigrants seek an adjustment to their immigration status each year and would be subject to the public charge review. More than 324,000 people in households with noncitizens are estimated to drop out or not enroll in public benefit programs.

Advocacy organizations say the number of people affected by the regulation is vastly larger, estimating that 26 million immigrants living in the United States legally will reconsider their use of government benefits because they fear how accepting assistance could affect their ability to remain in the United States.

Several immigration groups have pledged to sue the administration in an attempt to block the regulation from going into effect. Tens of thousands of people opposed the rule in a public comment period over the past several months.

When the regulation was published in the Federal Register on Monday morning, it contained an acknowledgment of how contentious the debate over it has been. “While some commenters provided support for the rule,” it said, “the vast majority of commenters opposed the rule.”

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