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How Trump's Latest Crackdown on Public Benefits Fits Into His Immigration Plans

A new memo could have a chilling effect on both family-based immigration and participation in public-benefit programs.
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People shop at a Food Town grocery store during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 30th, 2017, in Houston, Texas.

Advocates worry that Trump's memo will have a chilling effect on participation in public-benefit programs.

The Trump administration's latest immigration fight is playing out over public benefits. In a memo published last week, the president ordered several federal agencies to begin enforcing laws that would require family members sponsoring an immigrant in need of government assistance to pay for his or her benefits. It would also factor in the sponsor's financial situation while determining a non-citizen's eligibility for benefits, a process that often disqualifies immigrants from receiving benefits.

Although the details of the plan remain unclear, immigration and anti-poverty advocates are worried that the memo alone will have a chilling effect on both family-based immigration and participation in public-benefit programs—just like Trump's proposed public charge rule, which would penalize immigrants seeking permanent status who need food assistance or housing vouchers.

Although the children of immigrants will still be eligible for benefits, the directive could make their parents less likely to participate, or keep their families apart. "Overall, it adds to people's fear—people being reluctant to apply for benefits they need to be healthy and secure," says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), an anti-poverty non-profit.

Charging Sponsors for an Immigrant's Food and Financial Assistance

Trump's memo does not change existing law, but it does direct several agencies to strengthen rules that discourage low-income immigrants applying for citizenship from taking advantage of government assistance.

It's not clear exactly what will happen if a sponsor can't reimburse the government for a non-citizen's expenses. The White House has said cases "will be referred for collection procedures in accordance with the law." According to Lower-Basch, this could mean withholding money from someone's paycheck or intercepting tax refunds. Or, under a second proposed public-charge rule now open for comment, "one potential risk is if you're unable to pay benefits back, you could actually be deported," she says.

Many states already enforce what's known as sponsor deeming, or counting the income and resources of an immigrant's sponsor toward his or her own when it comes to eligibility for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, the laws Trump cited have not been applied consistently; Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program have often been exempt.

This new crackdown could extend the rules to these programs, and perhaps even further: The directive is addressed to departments that oversee programs not typically considered government assistance, such as the Department of Education and the Department of the Treasury. "It's boggling to think what it would like if they tried to apply this to all the other agencies that are listed," Lower-Basch says.

Family Separation Through Public Benefits?

Already, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has proposed a restriction on housing assistance that could result in mixed-status families being evicted, including thousands of children who are citizens. Could public schooling or tax breaks be next? While unlikely, many advocates have interpreted the memo's scope as a sign that the Trump administration is attempting to subvert existing legislation.

"The administration has been quite clear that they think Congress should change the rules and make it harder to come in as a family-based immigrant," Lower-Basch says. "I think a lot of these policies are backdoor ways to try to get that policy changed without Congress."

The plan aligns with the administration's shift to "merit-based immigration": The harder it is for poor immigrants and their families living in the U.S. to pay for food and medical services, the less likely they will be to come. The administration said as much in its announcement, which called Trump's memo "the latest step" in its merit-based immigration plan, released earlier this month.

Overall, these policies send "the message that if you're not white and wealthy, you're not welcome—or even safe—here," Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, and Olivia Golden, executive director of CLASP, said in a statement last week.

More Immigrants Are Going Without Public Benefits Under Trump

The White House claims that greater oversight will free up resources that now go to immigrants, whom the president has frequently demonized as a drain on the country's social safety net. An official fact sheet on the policy says "rampant welfare abuse by non-citizens is straining the social safety net and jeopardizing benefits needed by the most vulnerable American citizens."

Research shows this is false: Not only do immigrants use government assistance less than native-born citizens, but they also contribute to the country's economy. Experts say the rates cited in the memo vastly overestimate the number of immigrants who use benefits by including native-born relatives.

Moreover, the impact isn't limited to non-citizens. Lower-Basch and other immigration and anti-poverty advocates worry this change could decrease participation among families with native-born children who are citizens, and thus legally entitled to benefits.

Advocates have already observed a similar chilling effect from Trump's proposals on participation in food assistance programs like SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which experienced a record drop in enrollment last year. An Urban Institute report published last week found that one in seven adults in immigrant families decided not to participate in a public-benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking a future green card.