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The Journal Gazette

  • Bloomberg An applicant for U.S. citizenship recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the U.S. courthouse in Tucson. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

Thursday, March 29, 2018 1:00 am

Taking benefits may penalize immigrants

Plan would make it harder to become citizen

Nick Miroff | Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Immigrants who accept almost any form of welfare or public benefit, even popular tax deductions, could be denied legal U.S. residency under a proposal awaiting approval by the Trump administration.

According to a draft of the proposal obtained by the Washington Post, immigration caseworkers would be required to consider a much broader range of factors when determining whether immigrants or their U.S.-citizen children are using public benefits or may likely do so.

Current rules penalize immigrants who receive cash welfare payments, considering them a “public charge.” But the proposed changes from the Department of Homeland Security would widen the government's definition of benefits to include the widely used Earned Income Tax Credit as well as health insurance subsidies and other “non-cash public benefits.”

The changes would apply to those seeking immigration visas, or legal permanent residency, such as a foreigner with an expiring work visa. While it would make little difference to those living illegally in the shadows, it could affect immigrants protected by the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program – whose termination has been blocked by federal courts – if they attempt to file for full legal residency.

Immigrants and their families facing a short-term crisis could potentially have to forgo help to avoid jeopardizing their U.S. residency status. The proposal would also require more immigrants to post cash bonds if they have a higher probability of needing or accepting public benefits. The minimum bond amount would be $10,000, according to the DHS proposal, but the amount could be set higher if an applicant is deemed at greater risk of neediness.

DHS officials say the proposal is not finalized. But the overhaul is part of the Trump administration's broader effort to curb legal immigration to the U.S., and groups favoring a more restrictive approach have long insisted that immigrants are a drag on federal budgets and a siphon on American prosperity.

“The administration is committed to enforcing existing immigration law, which is clearly intended to protect the American taxpayer by ensuring that foreign nationals seeking to enter or remain in the U.S. are self-sufficient,” DHS spokeswoman Katie Waldman said in a statement.

“Any proposed changes would ensure that the government takes the responsibility of being good stewards of taxpayer funds seriously and adjudicates immigration benefit requests in accordance with the law,” she added.

DHS officials say the agency is preparing to publish the proposed rule changes in the Federal Register and invite public comment.

Reuters reported on the proposed changes in February, and Vox published excerpts of a draft. But a more recent, 223-page version obtained by the Post shows the proposal is more extensive than previously reported.

“It's striking that after strong public criticism of a leaked draft rule, the administration seems to be considering a version that goes even further, and they're actively considering whether to use this rule to create new grounds for deporting legal immigrants,” said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

One notable aspect of the proposal indicates native-born Americans use public benefits at roughly the same rate the foreign-born.

Out the 41.5 million immigrants living in the U.S., 3.7 percent received cash benefits in 2013, and 22.7  percent accepted non-cash benefits including Medicaid, housing subsidies or home heating assistance, according to statistics compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Those figures were nearly identical to the percentage of native-born Americans who get the same forms of assistance. Of the 270 million nonimmigrants, 3.4 percent received cash welfare that year, USCIS research found, and 22.1 percent received non-cash benefits.