With new rules taking effect Monday that disqualify more people from green cards if they use government benefits, immigrants, including citizens and legal residents, have dropped social services they or their children may be entitled to out of fear they will be kicked out of the U.S.
The guidelines that aim to determine whether immigrants seeking legal residency may become a government burden are part of the Trump administration's broader effort to reduce immigration, particularly among poorer people.
The rules that critics say amount to a “wealth test” were set to take effect in October but were delayed by legal challenges alleging a violation of due process under the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court last month cleared the way for the Trump administration to move forward while the rules were litigated in the courts.
Federal law already requires those seeking permanent residency or legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the U.S. — a “public charge,” in government lingo. But the new rules include a wider range of programs that could disqualify them, including using Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the institute, said the guidelines are so complicated that there have even been reports of parents dropping their kids' free school lunches, which are not affected.
Gelatt noted that the rules apply only to social services used after Monday and do not affect citizens or most green card holders. Refugees vetted by federal agencies before their arrival, as well as people who obtain asylum, are not affected.
The guidelines don't apply to many programs for children and pregnant and postnatal women, including Head Start early childhood education and WIC.
Some federal programs are eligible to all immigrants regardless of status, including the National School Lunch Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Head Start. Some immigrants can also become eligible for Social Security benefits and Medicare in old age.
But “means-tested welfare programs” — federal public benefits for those in poverty including Medicaid, CHIP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — are primarily reserved for US-born and naturalized citizens, green card holders, refugees, and asylees.
Unauthorized immigrants and most people with temporary immigration status, such as employment-based visas, are ineligible, and green card holders have to wait for five years before becoming eligible (although some states give them access earlier).
All of this means that relatively few immigrants would end up being penalized, under the final version of the rule, for using public assistance. But the rule has already been effective in dissuading many immigrants from continuing to access the public benefits they need.
Reporting about the potentially drastic effects of the rule, and advocacy groups’ decision to condemn it, all helped spread the word. Most immigrants will face no consequences for keeping their benefits, but advocates and attorneys are reluctant to make any such blanket statements for fear of being responsible for giving bad advice, especially now that the rule has gone into effect.
DHS’s cost-benefit analysis of the rule is premised on the fact that many people will unnecessarily unenroll from public benefits or refrain from enrolling from such programs in the future.