WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials announced Saturday that immigrants who legally use public benefits like food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers could be denied green cards under new rules aimed at keeping out people the administration deems a drain on the country.
The move could force millions of poor immigrants who rely on public assistance for food and shelter to make a difficult choice between accepting financial help and seeking a green card to live and work legally in the United States.
Older immigrants, many of whom get low-cost prescription drugs through the Medicare Part D program, could also be forced to stop participating in the popular benefits program or risk being deemed a “public charge” who is ineligible for legal resident status.
The move is not intended to affect most immigrants who have already been granted green cards, but advocates have said they fear that those with legal resident status will stop using public benefits to protect their status. The regulation, which the administration said would affect about 382,000 people a year, is the latest in a series of aggressive crackdowns by President Trump and his hard-line aides on legal and illegal immigration.
Federal law has always required those seeking green cards to prove they will not be a burden and has taken into consideration the acceptance of cash benefits. But the government has never before considered the use of other public benefits, like assistance for food.
Now, the new regulation — announced on the Department of Homeland Security website — will require that immigration caseworkers consider the use of public benefits to be “heavily weighed negative factors” for those who are applying to remain legally in the country on a permanent basis. Those who are deemed likely to become dependent on government assistance will probably be denied.
Immigrants could be asked in limited cases to post cash bonds of at least $10,000 to avoid being denied green cards under the new regulation, which does not need congressional approval but must still go through a public review process before it becomes final.
The 447-page rule, titled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” will not apply to families making less than 15 percent of the official poverty designation, officials said.
Pro-immigrant activists predict that poor immigrants will immediately begin withdrawing from public assistance programs out of a fear that they will be denied green cards and will be deported.
Trump administration officials say the rule is intended to promote fiscal responsibility.
“Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes,” the proposal says. It remains United States policy that “the availability of public benefits not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States.”
Critics of the new rule argue that it deviates from longstanding precedent. They also say it violates states’ rights to provide benefits to children and immigrants experiencing short-term crises.
Nearly 20 million children in immigrant families could be affected by the policy changes, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Almost nine in 10 of those children are United States citizens.