Trump Administration To Penalize Legal Immigrants Who Use Government Benefits

Published: Tuesday, August 13, 2019 - 11:23am
Updated: Tuesday, August 13, 2019 - 3:22pm
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MARK BRODIE: The Trump administration has unveiled a policy that will penalize immigrants awaiting permanent legal status if they use government benefit programs, like food stamps and Medicaid. The policy — which won’t take effect until October — would apply to people in the country legally. Acting Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli spoke to NPR Tuesday morning and defended the policy.

KEN CUCCINELLI: Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The new rule means that an immigrant's financial well-being will be more closely considered when they’re considered for a green card, and the legal use of benefits will be just one factor. But immigration advocates already say that will cause many families to drop their benefits out of fear. And that, according to Tucson immigration attorney Mo Goldman, is going to have a particularly heavy impact on minority and working class families in Arizona.

MO GOLDMAN: It's going to really hit a lot of the people who are minorities or again working class in a way that they will not be able to immigrate.

BRODIE: Some immigration advocates believe the policy is motivated by race with the intention of discouraging some people from seeking permanent legal status at all. Here's Ruben Reyes a Phoenix attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. 

RUBEN REYES: "I think the goal for this administration is unfortunately very much in line with what the president said to four congresswomen, which is 'go back to where you came from,'" said Ruben Reyes, a Phoenix attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

BRODIE: So, where did this rule come from? And who will it affect? For more on that, The Show spoke with NPR National Correspondent Pam Fessler.

LAUREN GILGER: And give us a little bit of context on this. Where does this idea of a public charge come from?

PAM FESSLER: Well actually it's been something that's been a policy and in laws (for) decades, started in the late 1800s, that we did not want necessarily people coming into the country who would rely predominantly on government aid to survive. We wanted people to be a little bit more self-sufficient, to be able to stand on their own two feet. Now the problem was that the law was somewhat vague. And so over the years it's been interpreted to include some benefits, and it's usually for people who are determined that they're going to rely predominantly on these benefits to survive. So they might be considered a public charge. So what the Trump administration has done is they have greatly expanded the number and types of benefits that people, if somebody is applying for a green card, looks like they might need to rely on — such as food stamps, other nutrition aid, Medicaid, housing assistance — that they would be can they could be considered a public charge.

GILGER: How did they determine whether or not somebody might need these things in the future? Are they already often on these benefits?

FESSLER: Sometimes they are. But this is this new rule, which you were supposed to go into effect Oct. 15 is only prospective. So it's only for people who after Oct. 15 one, apply for a green card and then use benefits. These particular benefits or look like they might need those benefits in the future not necessarily past. But the way they determine it, a lot of it is if it looks like you have a very low income, that you are getting a job with a very low income, that there's a very good chance that you are going to need these benefits, which is one of the factors. Basically it's a whole combination or package of factors that they look at when determining whether somebody is going to be a public charge. But of course it's so subjective, and the immigrant rights groups argue that it's going to affect millions, potentially millions of people. And they say that they see this as something that's targeted at low-income immigrants especially.

GILGER: And and give us a sense then of that reaction. I mean, we're hearing some of that definitely here in Arizona from immigrant rights act activists like you say, but what's the impact so far? What are they saying this will do?

FESSLER: Well first of all, they've already seen a chilling effect on immigrant families. As you well know, there are many, many families that are mixed status, so that they might have somebody who is a green card holder or applying for a green card, and they might have other members who are — especially children — who are American citizens. They've already seen, ever since the rumors began two years ago that the Trump administration was planning to do this, they've already seen a number of immigrant families disenrolling from a lot of these programs — like food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid — for fear of the impact it might have on their status. Even though, as I say, this is only prospective, there's so much confusion out there that people don't know what to do, so I think a lot of people decided hey, it's better not to have any kind of assistance on my record, or it might jeopardize my ability to get a green card. I think the other thing that's kind of interesting is there are industries that rely on immigrant workers. One group I talked to was the home care industry. A lot of their workers are recent immigrants. There's a great demand for home care workers. There's not enough American citizens who are willing to fill those jobs. But the demand is really high. But these are people who are generally not paid that well. So they are just the kind of people who, even if they work really hard and have a green card, they are very likely to need some kind of public assistance just to survive.

GILGER: And and like so many immigration policies that are coming out of this administration, a challenge to this one is expected as well. What are opponents planning to argue in terms of trying to stop this?

FESSLER: Well there's a couple of things. There's something called the Administrative Procedures Act, and that's how this went into effect. It was a public rule. The administration had been trying to get Congress to do something as far as limiting legal immigration to the country. And we should make clear, we are talking about legal, people who are here legally. And Congress did not pass anything, so the advocacy groups think that this is an end run around Congress. I think that'll be one of the arguments that they are going to make in court. There were also almost a quarter of a million public comments on the draft proposal that was published last year when this rule was first proposed. Most of those were against implementation. The groups are going to argue that the administration did not take these comments into consideration, which they are supposed to. The other thing is they have raised the possibility that this is a racially motivated rule because they say it targets generally lower income immigrants, who tend to be people of color. And the administration, of course, denies that this is the case.

GILGER: All right. That's NPR's Pam Fessler. Pam, thank you for joining us.

FESSLER: Thank you.

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