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Trump administration seeks to penalize immigrants for using public benefits

Recent immigration debates have focused on illegal entry into the U.S. But the Trump administration is issuing new rules to limit legal immigration, by penalizing green card seekers who use, or might eventually use, public benefits. Yamiche Alcindor talks to the Bipartisan Policy Center's Theresa Cardinal Brown about the public charge concept and who will feel the effects of the rule change.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Trump administration announced today that it plans to implement new immigration rules.

    As Yamiche Alcindor explains, it's one of the most aggressive steps yet to limit legal immigration.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Today's new rule from the Trump administration limits who will be eligible for a green card in the United States. Under current law, immigrants are already required to prove that they are not what the government deems a, quote, public charge. Today, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced the plans. He said any immigrants who use– or who have deemed likely to use a number of public benefits may not be eligible for legal status.

  • Ken Cuccinelli:

    The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens as legal permanent residents first who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state which is so expansive and expensive frankly.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The new rule includes services afforded to legal immigrants under current law, such as housing assistance, Medicaid and food stamps.

    To break it all down, I'm joined by Theresa Cardinal Brown. She is the director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

    Thanks so much, Theresa, for being here.

    Talk to me about how this will impact immigrants and the legal immigration process in the United States and who will be most impacted by this new rule.

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Sure. So, the rule applies to those who are applying to get green cards in the United States. And, so, one of the long-standing issues in immigration laws as you mentioned is whether or not someone would become a public charge. That has been broadly defined as somebody who has been mostly dependent on the government.

    It's a criteria that has been, I'd say, used sparingly, especially over the last couple of decades but has been a priority of this administration to implement. So, it would look whether or not people who are applying to be green cardholders have used public benefits that they might be eligible for. It would apply to current immigrants or citizens who are looking to sponsor others to come on green cards, and it would apply to some non-immigrants who are looking to extend or change their status as well.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What can you tell us about how much immigrants use public benefits in comparison to native born Americans.

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    So, we did a literature review a couple of years about who uses public benefits, and what we found is, in general, individual immigrants use benefits less often and at lower rates than U.S. citizens do, but some immigrant-headed households, particularly those with U.S. citizen children may use more because the children are eligible for benefits that maybe the immigrant parents are not.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Critics of the new rule say this is the Trump administration again unfairly targeting immigrants. There are talks there are going to be swift legal challenges to this. How does this new rule really factor into how the Trump administration has overall used its immigration agenda to target different groups?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Well, particularly its regulatory agenda has been about legal immigrants, and one of the things that we have seen is that a lot of the regulatory changes that have been implemented have been about reducing eligibility for legal immigration, reducing the number of people who can qualify for legal immigration or slowing down the legal immigration process.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    You said the term public charge had been kind of implemented and enforced sparingly. Tell us a little bit about the history of the term public charge and how certain immigrant groups have been subject to that term and what it's meant overall and in the years coming.

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Well, the idea of preventing the poor or paupers from immigrating has been around basically since the beginning of the republic. Initially when the United States was created, states had control over who could immigrant and would look for people who they thought might not be eligible to — able to work or support themselves. In the 1800s, Congress passed the sort of uniform immigration rules, the Chinese Escalation Act that included this public charge rule.

    But, over the years, it has been very subjectively enforced. So, for example, during the Ellis Island days, they would look whether or not they thought somebody was physically able of performing work, did they have family members already here, sponsors, did they bring any money with them. So it was sort of on the fly.

    This has been a priority of this administration to get a public charge rule published since the administration came in. An executive order was issued very early in the presidency asking for this to be done. So, it's new in that we don't know exactly how it's going to be implemented. It's still a relatively subjected standard, especially that prospective looking part, is an immigrant likely to be become a public charge?

    That's where it's a little more iffy because they're looking at things like, does the immigrant have a work history? What's their education level? Do they have any health issues that might affect whether or not they would become a public charge?

    We have to kind of see how that would be implemented, but we've already seen some of these because consulates overseas have been implementing some of this through the visa review process over the last year, already.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Now, I want to turn to a major story from last week. Some 680 immigrants were arrested during immigration raids at food processing centers in Mississippi. What goes into such raids and what legal consequences if any might employers face?

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    So, a raid like that is — that size and scope has probably been in process for many, many months. It probably was based on some information that Immigration and Customs Enforcement received that those employers are employing undocumented immigrants, then they also collaterally arrested undocumented immigrants they found on the premises. Now, ICE will go through all that documents that they found during those search warrants to see if they have enough evidence to proceed with prosecutions of those employers.

    So, we may see some prosecutions, but historically, it's been much more difficult to prosecute employers for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants than it has been to arrest the undocumented immigrants themselves and see them deported.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, lots of immigration news. Thanks so much for joining us, Theresa Cardinal Brown of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

  • Theresa Cardinal Brown:

    Thank you.

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