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The Trump Administration's Revised Immigration Rule Could Penalize American Citizens for Using Social Services

The Department of Homeland Security says a new draft rule saves taxpayers money. Activists warn that it targets immigrants and the poor.
An immigrant woman takes her daughter to school before going to work on February 9th, 2018, in Miami, Florida.

An immigrant woman takes her daughter to school before going to work on February 9th, 2018, in Miami, Florida.

The Trump administration is revising a little-known, century-old rule to penalize immigration applicants whose American-citizen relatives receive social assistance, reports say. Washington calls the draft rule a safeguard against the misuse of tax dollars; immigrant rights advocates warn that it could drive United States citizens into abject poverty.

The "public charge" provision of the U.S. immigration law aims to bar immigrants who would become dependent on state resources, unable, financially or mentally, to care for themselves. Currently the provision bars the government from considering non-cash benefits—food or housing assistance, for example—against family-based immigration petitions. The Department of Homeland Security's new draft rule, first reported by Reuters late last week, would make those non-cash benefits count against applications for immigration status. In effect, low-income families with non-citizens applying for legal residency status would have to choose between living with loved ones or much-needed public aid for their citizen relatives.

Civil liberties advocates are concerned not just for immigrants, but for low-income Americans in general. The draft rule emanates from "a nativist position that says we don't want certain people in our country," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles, "combined with the Republicans trying to undo the social welfare state, it's a twofer. You get all their worst ideologies in one package."

The aid that under the new draft rule could harm applications for immigration status includes subsidies for health-insurance coverage guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act. The apparent blow to the ACA is "not incidental," says Claudia Calhoon, director of health policy at the New York Immigration Coalition advocacy group. "[The administration is] trying to come at it from every angle they can."

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But the potential effect on American communities is more far-reaching than Donald Trump's apparent push to undo Obama-era policy. Among the benefits that would become public charge considerations are food stamps and other food safety programs. When children go hungry, their schooling takes a hit, "and that starts a cycle of potential challenges that aren't good for anybody," Calhoon says.

The affected communities include a long list of non-citizens with U.S.-born or naturalized relatives, including people granted stays of deportation by immigration courts, Temporary Protected Status recipients, and many others who have come under attack by the Trump administration, Calhoon explains.

The draft rule has the stated aim of protecting American taxpayers. "The administration is committed to enforcing existing immigration law, which is clearly intended to protect the American taxpayers," Department of Homeland Security Press Secretary Tyler Houlton tells Pacific Standard. "Any potential changes to the rule would be in keeping with the letter and spirit of the law—as well as the reasonable expectations of the American people for the government to be good stewards of taxpayer funds."

A copy of the draft rule published in Vox echoes that concern for American dollars. "The availability of public benefits must not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States; and Aliens in the United States must not depend on public resources to meet their needs," the draft reads.

But some fear that the safeguarding of tax dollars is really just a pretext for the administration's populist brand of politics, and indeed the provision has been used in the past to enable discriminatory immigration policy, analysts say. The "obscure" public charge provision was first enacted in 1882, according to analysis from the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and has historically been used as means for barring the disabled, Jewish European immigrants escaping the Holocaust, and the Irish escaping famine, among others. Today, under Trump, the provision would target Americans of Mexican origin and other people who hail from the communities targeted by Trump's rhetoric on immigrants. "The plan would significantly restrict family-based legal immigration from Mexico and other countries that have been the subject of the administration's racist and discriminatory animus," the CAP report reads.

NYIC's Calhoon reminds that nothing is over until the Federal Registrar publishes the new rule, at which time it will become open for public comment. "It's fortunate we have the advanced notice of the proposed rule," she says, adding that NYIC doesn't litigate, but it brings together an array of organizations that do. "We will be engaging with all partners we can, thinking of the full range of responses in acting."