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New Rule Could Curb Legal Immigration From Central America

The rule to deny green cards to those who may need welfare could affect people from Mexico and Central America more than people from Europe or Canada.
Posted at 5:59 PM, Aug 12, 2019

People seeking to legally immigrate to the U.S. could be prevented from getting green cards and visa extensions if they are using, or are likely to use, public benefits in the future. That's part of a finalized policy change the Trump administration announced on Monday. It will take effect in October.

Analysts told Newsy the new policy could greatly curb legal immigration from Mexico and Central America.

U.S. officials have long had the power to deny green cards to applicants they consider a potential taxpayer burden or a "public charge." But that designation was previously limited to those who needed cash assistance or long-term hospitalization.

Under the new rule, the government could also reject applicants who have received food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and several other benefits. 

And even if prospective immigrants have not already used these benefits, the government would look at potential "negative" factors such as poor health, income and education to determine how likely they are to use them in the future. The Trump administration first proposed the rule back in 2018.

"The impacts of this would be felt very unevenly; the people from Central America and Mexico, for example, would be more likely to have negative factors," Greenberg said.

In 2018, Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute conducted a study that looked at five negative factors that could disqualify people from getting green cards under the new rule: limited English, age, lacking a high school diploma, low household income and employment or education status.

Using recent U.S. census statistics, it then counted how many negative factors recent green card holders likely had. The study found that 60% of recent green card holders from Mexico and Central America had at least two negative factors. That figure was only 27% for those from Europe, Canada and Oceania.

"It would give federal officials enormous discretion to deny admission to the country for a very large share of people who now come into the country legally. ... It would really have profound effects on our immigration system," Greenberg said. 

The new rule wouldn't apply to refugees and asylum-seekers. Still, Greenberg is concerned by how the Trump administration is making serious changes to immigration policy without getting Congress' approval.

But many conservative commentators say it's the old guideline that was problematic because it was lax and outdated.

In a 2018 editorial on the issue, National Review argued the old public charge rule did "a horrible job" because "cash assistance is today but a small part of the welfare state." The conservative outlet also wrote, "There is no reason whatsoever for the U.S. to welcome immigrants who cannot support themselves without taxpayer subsidies." 

Much of the controversy stems from the fact that the 1952 "public charge" law is pretty vague. The law requires officials to "at a minimum" consider certain factors such as the health, finances and education of the applicant, but otherwise leaves the details of figuring out who "is likely to become a public charge" up to the executive branch.

This video includes reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN