WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is moving forward with one of its most aggressive steps yet to restrict legal immigration, denying green cards to many migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance, officials announced Monday.
Federal law already requires those seeking to become permanent residents and gain legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the U.S. -- a "public charge," in government speak -- but the new rules detail a broader range of programs that could disqualify them.
It's part of a dramatic overhaul of the country's immigration system that the administration has been trying to put into place.
While much of the attention has focused on President Donald Trump's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, the new change targets people who entered the United States legally and are seeking permanent status. It's part of an effort to move the U.S. to a system that focuses on immigrants' skills instead of emphasizing the reunification of families.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now weigh public assistance along with other factors such as education, household income and health to determine whether to grant legal status.
The rules will take effect in mid-October. They don't apply to U.S. citizens, even if the U.S. citizen is related to an immigrant who is subject to them.
The acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, said the rule change fits with the Republican president's message.
"We want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient," Cuccinelli said. "That's a core principle of the American dream. It's deeply embedded in our history, and particularly our history related to legal immigration."
Migrants make up a small percentage of those who get public benefits. In fact, many are ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status.
Immigrant rights groups strongly criticized the changes, warning the rules will scare immigrants into not asking for help. They are concerned the rules give too much authority to decide whether someone is likely to need public assistance at any time, giving officials the ability to deny legal status to more people.
The Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center immediately vowed to file a lawsuit. In a statement, the group called the new rules an attempt to redefine the legal immigration system "in order to disenfranchise communities of color and favor the wealthy."
On average, 544,000 people apply annually for green cards, with about 382,000 falling into categories that would be subject to this review, according to the government.
Addressing the rule at the White House, Cuccinelli denied the administration was rejecting long-held American values.
Pressed on the Emma Lazarus poem emblazoned below the Statue of Liberty that reads: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," he said: "I'm certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty."
Guidelines in use since 1999 refer to a public charge as someone primarily dependent on cash assistance, income maintenance or government support for long-term institutionalization.
Under the new rules, the Department of Homeland Security has redefined a public charge as someone who is "more likely than not" to receive public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. If someone has two benefits, that is counted as two months. And the definition has been broadened to include Medicaid, housing assistance and food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Following publication of the proposed rules last fall, Homeland Security received 266,000 public comments, more than triple the average number, and it made a series of amendments to the final rules as a result.
For example, women who are pregnant and on Medicaid or who need public assistance will not be subject to the new rules during the pregnancy and for 60 days after the birth.
The Medicare Part D low-income subsidy won't be considered a public benefit. And public benefits received by children up until age 21 won't be considered. Nor will emergency medical assistance, school lunch programs, foster care or adoption, student loans and mortgages, food pantries, homeless shelters or disaster relief.
Green card hopefuls will be required to submit three years of federal tax returns in addition to a history of employment. If immigrants have private health insurance, that will weigh heavily in their favor.
Active U.S. military members are exempt. So are refugees or asylum seekers, and the rules would not be applied retroactively, officials said. The administration also has moved to drastically reduce asylum in the U.S.
The administration recently tried to effectively end the protections at the U.S.-Mexico border before the effort was blocked by a court. It has sent more than 30,000 asylum seekers mostly from Central America back to Mexico wait out their immigration cases.
According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults.
Non-citizen immigrants make up 6.5% of all those participating in Medicaid. They make up 8.8%t of those getting food assistance.
The new public assistance threshold, taken together with higher requirements for education, work skills and health, will make it more difficult for immigrants to qualify for green cards, advocates say.
"Without a single change in the law by Congress, the Trump public charge rules mean many more U.S. citizens are being and will be denied the opportunity to live together in the U.S. with their spouses, children and parents," said Ur Jaddou, a former Citizenship and Immigration Services chief counsel who's now director of the DHS Watch run by an immigrant advocacy group.
"These are not just small changes. They are big changes with enormous consequences for U.S. citizens."
The new rules come at a time of increased criticism about Trump's hardline policies and his rhetoric.
On Aug. 3, 22 people were killed and dozens were injured in a shooting in El Paso, Texas, a border city that has become a face of the migration crisis. The shooting suspect told authorities he targeted Mexicans.
Critics contend Trump's words have contributed to a combustible climate that has spawned death and violence, but Trump disagrees.
Zeke Miller, Sophia Tareen and Jill Colvin of the Associated Press contributed to this report.