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Trump Administration Seeks To Limit Immigration Status Based On Use Of Public Aid


The Department of Homeland Security announced a proposal to sharply tighten immigration rules today. Some immigrants who use welfare programs that they are legally entitled to use, like food assistance and housing vouchers, could be denied green cards because they use those programs. For more, we turn to NPR's Joel Rose. And Joel, what more can you tell us about this proposed rule change?

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, we've seen leaked versions before. Now the administration on Saturday has confirmed that they are going to introduce a version of this rule into the Federal Register. And the highlights are that, basically, legal immigrants who use a wide range of public benefits - things like nutrition assistance, housing vouchers, as you mentioned, subsidized health insurance - could find that those benefits count against them when they go to apply for a green card to live here permanently.

BLOCK: Now, it's already been a rule that, in order to get a green card, an applicant can't be what is known as a public charge. And the administration is basing this rule on that thinking. What exactly is a public charge?

ROSE: Yeah. It's a phrase that goes all the way back into the 19th century in our immigration laws. Basically, it means an immigrant who relies primarily on the federal government. It has been interpreted traditionally to mean cash benefits, like welfare. But this is the first time that an administration has really proposed extending the notion of a public charge to noncash benefits - the housing, the health insurance, the nutrition assistance. And it's something that the administrations have not done before, perhaps because Congress has decided that immigrants should be entitled to use these programs. We're talking, of course, about legal immigrants...

BLOCK: Legal immigrants.

ROSE: ...Because illegal immigrants - right - illegal immigrants don't have access to benefits at all.

BLOCK: So help us understand that - because if Congress has decided that immigrants should have access to these benefits, how can the Trump administration change that?

ROSE: Well, they still have access, right? But the question is, you know, how it will weigh on their application to become permanent residents, to get a green card. There's going to be a 60-day review period once this is - once this proposed change is published in the Federal Register. And I think you can expect a lot of negative comments - right? - from public health officials, from immigrant rights advocates, I think even states and cities that have large immigrant populations. You know, we've seen, actually, that immigrants already, even before these rules are published, were afraid to use a lot of public benefits precisely for this reason, that leaked versions of this were out there and that people saw this coming.

So - and I think the public health community would argue that this is really sort of penny wise and pound foolish, that immigrants - yes, you may save some money if immigrants withdraw from health insurance or nutrition assistance in the short run, but any money you save, you know, and more you could wind up paying in the long run in terms of, you know, problems of health and, you know, other long-term developmental issues with children. So I think, you know, long story short, yes. I think there are going to be a lot of legal challenges to this.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about the timing of this, Joel. We are now two months away from the midterm elections. Is this part of a larger political strategy on the part of the Trump administration?

ROSE: I think so. I mean, you've certainly heard White House adviser Stephen Miller talk about how this issue of public charge and public benefits plays well with the Trump base. And, you know, we had heard that the Department of Homeland Security was sort of rushing to get these rules through ahead of the midterm elections, you know? And here we are with the rule set to go into the Federal Register.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thanks so much.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.