The Trump administration is weaponizing food stamps, family financial assistance, and other public benefits to make good on its promise to drive poor immigrants out of the country. On September 22, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a preliminary version of a draft regulation that would give the federal government broader authority to deny green-cards to people who could become “public charges,” that is, dependent on welfare programs.
DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement that the change aims to promote “immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.” But a growing number of critics say that it will serve to discriminate against low-income immigrants, especially people of color, and their families, scaring them off public benefit programs they are legally entitled to and indirectly harming the communities they live in.
But the rule is actually a backdoor attempt to slow what President Trump calls “chain migration”: efforts by family members of U.S. citizens and current green card holders to reunite with relatives whether they are already in the country or still abroad.
When deciding whether to grant or deny a green card application today, immigration officials consider an immigrant’s income, age, education, income, and use of certain cash-related benefits from welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). However, the scope of the law here is limited and the government rarely rejects applicants on “public charge” grounds.
The new proposal would expand the definition of “public charge,” allowing officials to evaluate an immigrant's current health and scrutinize use of non-cash benefits such as food stamps; public and subsidized housing; and Medicaid, and Medicare prescription drug benefits for low-income seniors.
The plan would also decrease the amount of money a person can earn and still receive benefits. People whose public benefits make up more than half of their income or financial support are currently deemed “primarily dependent,” a standard that the Trump administration found far too generous. Under the proposal, an individual’s cumulative benefits could not exceed 15 percent of federal poverty level in a 12-month period, capping total yearly benefits at $1,821 worth, or about $152 a month, under current levels.
This change alone stands to sow fear and confusion in immigrant communities. The majority of permanent residents can only receive public benefits once they’ve held a green card at least five years. But the complex rule will likely mean little to families who are terrified of the prospect of being separated,whether the rule affects them or not. Administrators have already noticed a drop in benefit program enrollment rates among families with noncitizen parents and other family members after an earlier draft of the proposal leaked in February, despite the fact that it wasn’t yet set into law.
DHS expects the new rule to reduce the number of green-card holders. Nearly 380,000 immigrants could be affected every year, saving up to $19.3 billion over 10 years. But the proposal could also hurt the prospects of hundreds of thousands of people outside the country looking to obtain green cards through the State Department, which can also reject an application on public charge grounds. The department will likely update its own regulations to mirror the DHS rule once it’s finalized.
Much like the work requirements foisted on American citizens by conservative lawmakers, the real goal here is not to increase opportunity or decrease unemployment among immigrants but to force them off government assistance. Immigrants generally have higher employment rates than native-born American public assistance recipients. Moreover, DHS predicts that disenrollment from public benefits could lead to reduced productivity and educational attainment among immigrants, further complicating their lives. DHS did not suggest how indigent immigrants could improve their employment or earnings prospects to compensate for the lost public support.
DHS also recognizes that the rule will have negative effects on immigrants’ health, including “increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence.” The department also predicts that the rule could lead to increased use of emergency rooms as a method of primary health care due to delayed treatment as well as a rise in the spread of communicable diseases in immigrant communities.
“Forgoing necessary care can turn treatable illnesses into more complex conditions that are more expensive and difficult to treat,” Darrell Kirch, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges said in a statement. “In addition to restrictions on Medicaid usage, the proposed rule also could also impede access to housing and food, two social determinants of health, making existing health disparities even worse for many underserved populations.”
Five physician associations also released a separate joint statement this week condemning the rule.
The new regulation could harm children who are American citizens. More than eight million children with immigrant parents have health coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) according to a recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation. The current proposal doesn’t include CHIP, but the department has requested feedback on whether to include the program in the final rule.
Some immigrants would be exempt from the rule, including current green card holders, immigrants applying for naturalization, refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants who have been granted asylum.
While the new rule does not require officials to automatically reject any immigrant who uses public benefits, it does give officials the discretion to decide who gets permanent residency —and the benefits that come with that status—and who does not. All of these moves come despite reams of evidence that most immigrants use benefits at lower rates than most Americans and help fuel the U.S. economy.
Forcing immigrants to choose between seeing a doctor, putting dinner on the table, and remaining in the country is a particularly cruel way to promote self-reliance. It’s also a misguided one, founded on Donald Trump’s burning belief that immigrants are either violent criminals, free riders, or both. But little of this should come as a surprise. In fact, it’s par for the course from a president who ordered a travel ban, callously split up undocumented immigrant families, and wondered aloud why we couldn’t have more immigrants from Norway instead of people from “shithole countries.”
A 60-day period of public comment will begin once DHS finalizes its draft rule. DHS may update the plan after considering public input, and will then issue a final version.
Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.