Immigration and Society

A Proposed New Rule Would Ban Public Assistance for Legal Immigrants. Here’s What That Means.

August 13, 2019  • David K Gibson

The Department of Homeland Security has proposed a new rule, in which legal immigrants in the United States could find that any usage of public benefits may put their green card applications in jeopardy, potentially preventing them from becoming permanent residents. According to acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli, who introduced the rule on August 12, the measure is intended to promote “the virtues of perseverance, hard work, [and] self-sufficiency.”

Critics of the measure have been quick to note that the rule gives the government the license to determine, in Cuccinelli’s words, “whether an individual’s likely at any point in the future to become a public charge as we define it in the regulation.” The definition includes general assistance, Supplemental Security Income, SNAP, most forms of Medicaid, and certain subsidized housing programs, with notable carveouts for some populations including minors, trafficking victims, and pregnant women.

Trying to determine who might have a future free of government assistance is problematic, because the most obvious indicators would be either having money or an obvious ability to make it. This could set up an easy vehicle for discrimination. As noted by a reporter questioning Cuccinelli at the announcement, it also seems to violate a (non-official) national intent of accepting the world’s “tired” and “poor.”

The idea that immigrants should not benefit from government largesse is an old one.

“This rule will cover almost 400,000 people per year whose applications to become legal permanent residents will include a meaningful analysis of whether they are likely to become a public charge or not,” answered Cuccinelli. “I don’t think by any means we are ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty.”

As shocked as some are by this new rule, the idea that immigrants should not benefit from government largesse is an old one. It has, in fact, been proposed as a compromise position that would lessen anti-immigration sentiment— at least where it exists on economic grounds.

At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, Reihan Salam of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research explained such an approach in a session titled “Forging an American Immigration Policy for the 21st Century,” and was met with a bit of pushback from Leon Rodriguez, former director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The relevant section begins here, but you can view the entire session for a recent history of US immigration policy, as well as for suggestions to adapt it to a rapidly changing set of international and domestic conditions.

Immigration and Society
The Cost of Criminalizing Immigrants and Militarizing Borders Is Greater than We Think
September 7, 2018 • Abigail Golden-Vazquez