New rules for legal immigrants

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: possible changes to an immigration regulation.

NICK EICHER, HOST: U.S. immigration law has a long-standing policy. Since 1891, we’ve denied visas or residential status to those, in the words of the law, “likely to become a public charge.”

In other words, immigrants likely to rely on public-welfare programs.

REICHARD: Since the Department of Homeland Security’s creation in 2002, it’s used a 1999 guidance to determine who is a public charge.

The rule defines it this way: an immigrant who cannot support himself and whose annual income would consist of more than half in cash welfare.

EICHER: But late last month, the Department of Homeland Security proposed a new “public charge” regulation: one that would drastically change the standard. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Few Americans will read all 450 pages of the new “public charge” rule the Department of Homeland Security has proposed. But David Bier is one of them. He’s an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. And he boils it all down to two important changes.

BIER: The first is it now is going to look at both cash and non cash assistance to people who are in the United States. The second thing is rather than looking at how much of your income is coming from public or private sources, it creates a flat rate standards.

Taken together, Bier says the changes significantly lower the bar for what is considered dependency on the government. The Trump administration will define “public charge” to mean anyone who uses a flat rate of 15 percent or more of the poverty line in public benefits. That comes to $2 and fifty cents a day, per person for a family of four.

The standard does not take into account the degree to which an immigrant is self-sufficient. So Bier did some math. He calculated a family of four making 175 percent of the poverty line—or nearly $44,000 dollars—in private income.

If that family received $2.50 per day, per person in welfare they would still be  more than 90 percent self-sufficient. But it wouldn’t matter.

BIER: So you could make 10 times as much from private sources, but you’re still going to be a deemed a public charge.

This low bar for being deemed a public charge is further lowered by the other important change. The old rule only considered cash welfare assistance, but the new proposal would project an immigrant’s likelihood of someday using any welfare program—including Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance.

BIER: So something like 20 percent of people in the United States are on Medicaid, whereas less than 5 percent are receiving cash assistance. So the likelihood of using these, these programs, uh, just increased dramatically as a starting place.

DHS says it is making the changes to “clearly define” the long-standing law and to ensure that immigrants won’t be reliant on public benefits.

Bier says it actually makes the law more confusing.  The proposed rule says immigrants seeking legal status must—quote—“establish that they are not likely at any time to become a public charge.” But DHS doesn’t define what “likely” means.

The government says it will take financial documents and indicators like credit scores into account, but it can also consider the “particular facts and circumstances of each case.” Circumstances like whether an immigrant can speak English, has obtained a high school diploma, or has a medical condition.

BIER: The government is essentially saying, well, we’re not going to tell you what standard we’re going to use. And so ultimately we don’t really know what will happen when this rule comes into effect.

President Trump has long advocated a “merit-based” immigration system. He says it would prioritize skills and employability over family ties. Bier says this is a big step in that direction.

BIER: It’s a version of a merit-based immigration reform without going through Congress.

Doug Rand is the founder of Boundless, a company that provides tech support to immigrants applying for visas online. Rand says if the proposed changes go into effect, industries that rely on immigrant labor will feel it the most—including agriculture, healthcare, and tech.

RAND: By their own calculations this is going to affect nearly 400,000 green card applicants per year, uh, over 500,000 applicants for temporary visa and furthermore, DHS has declared its intention to ultimately harmonize these standards with the State Department, which makes decisions on anyone applying for a green card or a temporary visa from abroad, which is millions more people.

Economists predict the policy could hurt federal revenues. A 2017 National Academy of Sciences report found, on average, immigrants contribute $150,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their lifetime.

The proposed rule is in the public comment period for the next 7 weeks. But immigration attorneys are already fielding a flood of inquiries. Ruby Powers is an immigration attorney in Houston.

POWERS: I basically said we don’t know what it’s gonna look like. We’re still waiting. But that seems to be what my life is going to be like once this becomes a rule and even beforehand because everybody’s been asking me about it.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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