The Trump administration on Monday began enforcing new rules designed to weed out immigrants who have used public assistance in the U.S. – or are at risk of doing so in the future.
Building on existing federal law, the new “public-charge” rule requires U.S. officials to apply more stringent income- and wealth-based requirements to green card and some visa applicants, while giving the officials wide latitude to reject immigrants who they determine are – or could become – reliant on a variety of social welfare programs, including food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid.
Under the rule, any immigrant who receives certain kinds of public assistance for more than 12 months in the previous three years will be ineligible for entry or permanent residency. Officials can also consider other factors for each applicant, including age, language skills, wealth and education, and weigh those factors to determine the potential for welfare use in the future. In a surprising twist, the very fact of applying for a green card can count against an applicant, as The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell reported last week.
The rule could have a big effect: “The sweeping policy change, one of the administration top immigration priorities, is expected to block the entry of hundreds of thousands of people, disproportionately prospective immigrants from Asia, Africa and Latin America,” CBS News said.
Estimates of the number of immigrants who could be affected by the rule vary, ranging from 400,000 to 3.9 million. And some of those people will be middle-class, Axios said, since anyone with an income below 250% of the poverty line – or $76,700 for a family of five – will be penalized in the new system. Having a mortgage or credit card debt will also be negative.
Proponents of the law say it will save money by removing immigrants from social welfare programs, and the administration estimates the savings will come to more than $3 billion a year. Critics, however, say any savings will be dwarfed by the economic losses associated with fewer workers and economic output. New American Economy, an advocacy group founded in 2010 by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said the rule could generate an economic loss of more than $80 billion.
A victory for conservatives: The new rule is the product of a long-standing effort on the right to reduce the number of poorer immigrants, who are seen as imposing a high cost on society. “Conservatives have been trying for decades to create an immigration system that rewards immigrants who won’t be a burden on society and discourages those who will,” The Washington Times said.
At the White House Saturday, press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that the rule will "reestablish the fundamental legal principle that newcomers to our society should be financially self-reliant and not dependent on the largess of United States taxpayers."
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the rule was intended to “encourage self-sufficiency, promote immigrant success and protect American taxpayers."
Critics see something more sinister: The Trump administration is trying to turn back the clock and close the door on poor and non-white immigrants, says Doug Rand, an immigration specialist who worked in the Obama White House. "It's the administration saying let's get as close as we can to the 1924 act that restricted immigration from everywhere but Northern Europe," Rand told Axios.
In an editorial Monday, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) said the public charge rule is “un-American” and cruel, and likely to hurt the country in the long run. “Immigrants are not ‘burdens’ upon the American public as the Trump administration wants you to believe,” Swalwell said. “In fact, our economy likely would suffer without the immigrants this rule could bar from living in the US.”
More legal challenges ahead: The public-charge rule was issued last August – you can see the final version here – and scheduled to take effect in October, but legal challenges delayed its implementation. The rule cleared a significant hurdle last Friday, when the Supreme Court voted 5-4 along ideological lines to allow it to take effect in Illinois – sparking a fiery dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who accused the conservative majority of rushing the case in order to give the Trump administration a victory.
Additional legal challenges are making their way through the courts, and the Supreme Court may address the issue again in the coming months.