Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

What you need to know about the Trump administration’s new penalties for legal immigrants

Embed from Getty Images

By Roey Hadar

Production Associate

The Trump administration announced Monday that it plans to implement new rules for green card eligibility, a step aimed at limiting legal immigration. The rule change would make it harder for legal immigrants to stay as permanent U.S. residents if they use or are deemed likely to use government benefits such as food stamps, public housing or Medicaid.

Why is this proposal being implemented?: Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director Ken Cuccinelli said when announcing the plan that the administration wants to make sure immigrants are “self-sufficient.” He framed the move as part of President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement efforts. White House advisers, including senior adviser Stephen Miller, have long advocated for legal immigration restrictions, even as the president has said he supported expanding legal immigration.

When does it take effect?: The rule change is scheduled to take effect in 60 days but could be delayed in the likely event that the law is challenged in court.

What was the existing policy?: Existing immigration rules required applicants to prove they were not a “public charge” who would depend mostly on government help, but the law was much narrower. It used to only restrict people who used only a handful of government programs, like welfare. The existing law’s narrow scope allowed most applicants to get around the rule.

Who does the rule apply to?: The rule will apply to all people seeking to obtain U.S. green cards after the rule takes effect. The law will not apply retroactively and thus will not penalize legal immigrants who have already used government benefits. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says, however, that it will consider using public benefits as a factor in the future when legal immigrants apply to change their immigration status.

DHS estimates the rule change will affect roughly 382,000 people but outside groups say the number could be far higher. New American Economy, a bipartisan business coalition advocating for immigration reform, says over a million people could be affected. Existing green card holders, refugees, asylum seekers and pregnant women and children are exempt.

Do immigrants use public benefits more than American citizens?: Multiple studies have found recent immigrants tend to use fewer benefits than native-born American citizens. The libertarian Cato Institute found that immigrants use fewer benefits than native-born Americans, while the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Theresa Cardinal Brown told PBS NewsHour that while immigrants do use fewer benefits, some immigrant families use more benefits if they have children who were born in the U.S.

How could this affect the U.S. economy?: On July 31, a group of 17 Democratic attorneys general warned the Trump administration that the rule change would cause “extensive injury to our states’ economies,” citing the chilling effect the proposal could have on immigrants’ access to medical care and benefits.

The U.S. economy is experiencing a labor shortage where there are more jobs available than there are people unemployed. The shortage is at its worst in fields requiring low-skill labor, such as agricultural jobs, home health care work and staff at restaurants and hotels.  But the rule change targets lower-income immigrants who tend to fill those low-skill jobs, so the change may make it even more difficult for companies to fill jobs they are already struggling to fill.