New Attack Aims at Green Cards

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 24, 2018

We have rules — based on federal law from the 1880s — in this country that say immigrants must be able to support themselves. We’ve even published rules that define that eligibility as holding a green card or permanent residence in the United States, and setting a five-year time period to be eligible for particular benefits.

Until now, we have not seriously insisted that those rules extend to health or hunger, conditions that which unfortunately do not distinguish among the citizenship of individuals.

Over the weekend, the Department of Homeland Security decided to address that gap, deciding that immigrants who legally use public benefits like food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers could be denied green cards.

The new rules — available here — under new rules aimed at keeping out people the administration sees as a drain on the country. The rules have not taken effect yet, and the department will publish an address for public comment for 60 days before they do.

Obviously, this new enforcement policy

The move could force millions of poor immigrants who rely on public assistance for food and shelter to make a difficult choice between seeking financial help and asking for a green card to live and work legally in the United States. While most people who already have qualified for green cards likely will not be affected, some older immigrants now using Medicare or the prescription drug program might face a problem continuing with the program.

Indeed, the administration has suggested that about 382,000 immigrants a year could be affected as part of the crackdown, though it exempts those earning less than 15% of the nation’s definition of poverty. Critics use figures that start at a million children and adults.

Since 1882, federal law has said would-be immigrants cannot prove a “public charge” on American taxpayers. Over the years, rules have ebbed and flowed about the acceptance of welfare payments or other cash benefits, but until now the government has not specifically stopped health or food assistance. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries public charge was the most common ground for refusing admission at U.S. ports of entry, the department’s announcement said.

“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” said Homeland Secretary Kristjen Nielsen.

The new rules will allow the government the option of denying green cards if there is a determination that the use of public benefits by the individual is among “heavily weighted negative factors” for applicants. Those who are deemed likely to become dependent on government assistance probably will be denied. The rules would affect people seeking permanent residency and those on temporary visas who intend to remain.

According to news accounts, immigrants could be asked in limited cases to post cash bonds of at least $10,000 to avoid being denied green cards under the new regulation, which does not need congressional approval.

The political intentions here fairly drip from the page. The White House’s ever-tightening policies on illegal and legal immigration are being scripted by adviser Stephen Miller as ends in themselves, but also because they make for good politics with supporters of President Trump. That they are being announced now just ahead of the November elections is consistent with the political overtones.

The idea that immigrants and their children will be subjected to contagious disease, that they will lack access to subsidized housing, that they will not be able to stretch low wages with food stamps all sound pretty uncaring to my ears. As with the policy to separate families, this is meant as a goad to make not-yet-permanent residence give up their immigration dreams and return to their own countries. The poor are more likely to themselves in short-term financial jams, of course.

This is to say nothing of public schools where untreated diseases might be better able to spread to fellow, citizen students.

For their part, Trump administration officials say the rule is intended to promote fiscal responsibility.

I wonder whether Melania Trump’s parents, who just were naturalized, took advantage of any such benefit programs.

Also exempted are refugees, asylum seekers who enter the country, or to legal immigrants who serve in the military. Cash or other assistance given to the immigrant victims of natural disasters would not be counted against them.

Critics of the new rule, including some Democratic governors, argue that it deviates from longstanding precedent and violates states’ rights to provide benefits.

In addition to the use of public benefits, the proposed rule also deems certain health conditions — like mental health disorders, heart disease and cancer — to be among the heavily weighed factors. The proposal states that “an alien is at high risk of becoming a public charge if he or she has a medical condition and is unable to show evidence of unsubsidized health insurance.”

Immigrant advocacy groups said people may avoid or withdraw from public aid programs even at the risk of losing shelter and suffering deteriorating health because they worry they will be denied visas. Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told the Associated Press that the proposal was “an inhumane attack on the health and wellbeing of so many families and communities across the country.”

The government statement said, “Importantly, by law, the public charge inadmissibility determination is a prospective determination based on the totality of the circumstances, which includes statutorily required factors such as age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills. In making this determination, DHS is proposing to consider current and past receipt of designated public benefits above certain thresholds as a heavily weighed negative factor. The rule would also make nonimmigrants who receive or are likely to receive designated public benefits above the designated threshold generally ineligible for change of status and extension of stay.”

Make America Great, indeed.