USCIS Seeks to Weaponize Public Benefits Against Immigrants

Long rumored to be true, the Trump administration is moving forward on a new USCIS rule that would make it harder for people who use public benefits to get a green card or a visa. The rule would not directly affect people who are applying for citizenship, but it would affect families who are seeking to reunite with loved ones in the U.S. or who are seeking green cards.

The U.S. has a longstanding rule against allowing people likely to become “public charges” from gaining legal permanent resident status. However, the old rule defined public charges as people who received 50 percent of their income from public benefits. The new rule would broaden the definition to anyone who is receiving 15 percent of the poverty line in public benefits.

Additionally, the old rule only counted a small number of federal and state programs when calculating public benefit income. The new rule not only expands the definition of “public charge,” but expands the criteria to include most federal safety net benefits. Policy experts anticipate that there will be mass confusion about which benefits count toward being considered a public charge.

The Hidden ‘Benefit’ of the New Policy

″It’s an opportunity to fuel the nativist fire and scapegoat immigrants as a drain on our economy,” said Wendy Cervantes, senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy. Her organization is a nonpartisan group devoted to improving the lives of low-income people.

The new USCIS policy could scare people away from public benefits while making the road to the United States even harder for low-income immigrants. Cervantes believes the policy will scare immigrants from using the public benefits that they would still be liable to use under the policy, like children’s food stamps. The Department of Homeland Security is counting on it.

Announcement of New Rule Already Causing Decline in Nutrition Program Enrollment

The DHS claims that the policy could cause up to 324,000 people to avoid using safety net benefits out of fear for endangering their green card applications. Even assuming their favorable estimates, that only saves the government 1% of what they spend on food and health benefits. The savings is relatively negligible while scaring away families from using the benefits they need.

In 18 states, there has already been a sharp drop in enrollment in the WIC, a federal nutrition program aimed at pregnant women and children. There have been drops of up to 20 percent, which agencies attribute to fears about the new rule.

Increased Dependence on Immigration Professionals

Both current and new rules regarding how a person is considered a public charge gives final power to immigration officials. The official rule is whether an applicant is “likely” to reach the benefits threshold—”likely” being the operative word. Immigration officials decide what “likely” looks like, which means the process is likely to become even more inconsistent.

For immigrants to successfully argue for their application, they’re going to need someone who knows the process—who knows local officials by name and how likely they are to approve an application based on the income of the applicant. Now more than ever, it’s vital for immigrants and would-be immigrants to hire an immigration attorney.

Speak with our New Jersey immigration lawyer to discuss your case—if you have been using public benefits and are applying for a green card, we can help you steer the process in your favor. Call (800) 909-8129 or use our online form today.