NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 02:  Immigrants wait in line to become U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony on February 2, 2018 in New York City. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) swore in 128 immigrants from 42 different countries during the ceremony at the downtown Manhattan Federal Building.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Trump changes tone on immigration
01:12 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The White House is reviewing a proposal that could penalize immigrants who use certain government programs, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed Thursday.

The proposed rule change would substantially expand the type of benefits that could be considered as grounds to reject any immigrants’ application to extend their stay in the US or become a permanent resident and eventually a citizen.

The move continues efforts by the Trump administration to overhaul the US immigration system and the changes could have the effect of substantially tipping the scales in favor of high-income immigrants – all without requiring an act of Congress. The changes could amount to an effective income test of immigrants to the US, critics say.

The expansion would going forward include programs like children’s health insurance, tax credits and some forms of Medicaid as black marks against immigrants seeking to change their status to stay.

By including benefits used by family members of the immigrants, the proposal could also apply to benefits being used by US citizens, who may be the spouse or child of the immigrant applying for status

DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton said the proposed rule had been sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget – the final step of the approval process before it’s released.

Houlton would not comment on the specifics of the proposal, but did said that DHS is “committed to enforcing existing immigration law … and part of that is respecting taxpayer dollars.”

CNN first reported on the changes as they were in development last month. The Washington Post obtained a more recent version of the proposal on Wednesday.

Why the change matters

US law authorizes authorities to reject immigrants if they are likely to become a “public charge” – or dependent on government.

Since the 1990s, that has meant that immigrants shouldn’t use so-called “cash benefits,” but a large number of programs were exempt from consideration.

But the new rule would include programs such as some forms of Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, subsidized health care under Obamacare and the Earned Income Tax Credit, according to the latest draft obtained by the Post.

In one change from the earlier draft obtained by CNN, educational programs that benefit children, including Head Start, will not be included under the administration’s plan. Programs like veteran’s benefits that individuals earn would also be excluded.

The rule would not explicitly prohibit immigrants or their families from accepting the benefits. Rather, it authorizes the officers who evaluate their applications for things like green cards and residency visas to count the use of these programs against the immigrant, and gives them authority to deny the immigrants visas on these grounds – even if the program was used by a family member.

The decision sets up a difficult scenario for immigrants who hope to stay in the US. If they accept any public benefits – or their family members do – they could potentially be denied future abilities to stay. That includes decisions about whether to use health insurance subsidies for them or their children, or tax credits they qualify for otherwise.

Immigrants are no more likely to qualify for these programs than the native US population, according to tables included in the documents, the Post reported. There is no substantial difference in the rate between the two groups – in some cases foreign-born residents are slightly more likely to use a program, but in some cases the native-born population is, according to the tabulations.