Proposed Immigration Change Affects Legal Immigrants

The Trump Administration has worried liberals and conservatives alike with its proposed change to legal immigration, which expands the notion of “public charge” in a way that is projected to affect more than 20 million immigrants and visa holders. For years, the probability that an applicant for legal status “is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense” could affect the likelihood that the application would be granted, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

As of May 2017, “Non-cash or special-purpose cash benefits are generally supplemental in nature and do not make a person primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Therefore, past, current, or future receipt of these benefits do not impact a public charge determination,” but the administration is planning to change that. White House adviser Steven Miller has proposed that some of the benefits listed by USCIS as ones that wouldn’t affect a public charge determination including some forms of Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. And, the acceptance of any of those benefits in the past could affect future eligibility, even if it would not have at the time that the benefits were accepted. 

A story at TheHill.com by Raul Reyes tells the story of Mexican businesswoman Michelle Gutierrez, whose trip to see family in Maryland was stopped by Customs and Border Protection agents in Texas earlier this month. Despite having abided by the terms of tourist visas in the past and having a family and business in Mexico, she was considered a risk for violating her visa and becoming a public charge because in 2016, she experienced pre-gestational diabetes while in the United States and used CHIP and Medicaid, which is legal on a tourist visa. 

Miller’s plan is not aimed at undocumented immigrants. It is an effort to limit legal immigrants. It is also not yet law, but The Washington Post reports that the State Department’s foreign affairs manual instructs officials to consider public charge-related concerns when asked to issue visas. Gutierrez’s story suggests that the new guidelines are being considered domestically as well. 

As has sadly been the case in so many of the Trump Administration’s immigration-related policy decisions, Miller’s public charge changes appear to be driven by ideology, disproven beliefs, and a desire to court specific voters more than economic sense. Studies consistently show the positive economic impact of immigrants, but the Trump Administration and the voters it seems to court seem to only conceive of immigrants as unskilled and welfare-dependent.

Those who are concerned should let their representatives know that this kind of unfairness and cruelty is inconsistent with American values, and that these actions actually weaken the American economy. People should also share informed takes and solid stories that deal with this policy because secrecy is the ally of such actions. There is clearly an audience that Miller, Trump and his administration speak to with such actions, but we need to let them know that the audience isn’t as big as they think it is.

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