Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, speaks...

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, speaks at the White House on Monday. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

WASHINGTON — New criteria rolled out by the Trump administration on Monday would allow the federal government to deny green cards to legal immigrants enrolled in public assistance programs and applicants deemed likely to need such programs in the future.

The move to restrict legal immigration is the latest push by President Donald Trump to reshape the nation's immigration laws. The new rules are part of a broader effort led by Trump to move away from a family-based visa system, which allows naturalized citizens to sponsor the entry of  relatives, to a merit-based system that places a premium on the education, age and income of applicants.

Under the new “public charge” criteria set to take effect on Oct. 15, federal immigration officials would be able to deny visa and green card applicants who have received aid from government programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance. Department of Homeland Security officials say the policy change is expected to affect 383,000 applicants in the coming year.

Administration officials say the move will promote “self-sufficiency” among those seeking to remain in the United States legally, but immigration advocates say the move targets immigrants working low-wage jobs and those who hail from countries reeling from widespread poverty.

While Trump's public remarks and tweets since taking office often focus on his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, and his desire to build a southern border wall, the president has also pushed measures to limit legal immigration. He cut the number of refugees allowed into the United States from 45,000 to 30,000 and has made it harder for immigrants to petition for asylum.

Acting Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli, in a briefing with reporters at the White House, said the changes to the longstanding “public charge” rule “is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility.”

"We certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet," Cuccinelli said.

Children of immigrant parents hold signs in support of them...

Children of immigrant parents hold signs in support of them and others who were picked up during an immigration raid, during a protest march to the Madison County Courthouse in Canton, Miss., on Sunday. Credit: AP / Rogelio V. Solis

The public charge rule was first enacted in 1882, the same year the federal government enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring the entry of Chinese laborers. The initial “public charge” statute allowed the federal government to deport or deny entry to “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”

The current public charge rule authorizes the federal government to deny a green card or visa based on an applicant's use of taxpayer-funded programs, such as welfare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or other long-term health care programs. Trump’s rules expand the definition to include housing assistance, food assistance, and Medicaid.

Immigration advocacy groups have vowed to challenge the rules in court, potentially delaying the October start date of the new regulations.

The National Immigration Law Center said it planned to file a federal lawsuit to block the new rules. In a statement, the group said the rules send “immigrants and communities of color one message: you are not welcome here.”

"It will have a dire humanitarian impact, forcing some families to forgo critical life-saving health care and nutrition," the group’s executive director, Marielena Hincapieé, said in a statement. "The damage will be felt for decades to come."

Claudia Calhoon, a senior director at the New York Immigration Coalition, said that leading up to the announcement of the new rules, fearful immigrants have withdrawn their U.S.-born children from programs, unaware that policy shift does not apply to citizens.

“Many more families are affected by the rule in a broader sense, in terms of the chilling effects, than are actually affected in the narrow, technical sense,” Calhoon said. “I think that’s part of the strategy of the administration, it’s just another way of sowing fear and instability.”

Hardline immigration groups lauded the new policy, saying it would keep immigrants from accessing taxpayer-funded resources. 

The Federation for Immigration Reform -- also known as FAIR -- said in a statement: “Carelessly providing millions of dollars in benefits to people who never paid into our system is a recipe for financial disaster.”

Low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, at a lower rate than do comparable low-income native-born adults, according to an analysis of census data by the Associated Press.

Non-citizen immigrants make up 6.5 percent of all those participating in Medicaid, compared with more than 87 percent of participants who are native-born. Immigrants make up 8.8 percent of food stamp recipients, compared with more than 85 percent of participants who are native-born.

Some groups of immigrants will be exempt from the new rules, including those serving in the U.S. military and those granted admission into the United States as refugees and asylum seekers.

An exemption has also been carved out for pregnant women enrolled in Medicaid and other public assistance programs -- they will not be subject to the rules during their pregnancy and for 60 days after the birth of their child.

The rules will also not be used against minors or against children adopted from outside the United States.

Other sources of public assistance, such as school lunch programs, food pantries, homeless shelters and disaster relief, will also not be counted in the application process.

With The Associated Press

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