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(CNN) —  

The Trump administration is seeking to give itself broad latitude to reject immigrants from the US if they have too little income and education, which could effectively impose a merit-based immigration system without an act of Congress.

The change is put forth in a proposed regulation, which would dramatically reshape how the government defines an immigrant likely to be dependent on the government.

President Donald Trump has long touted what he calls a merit-based system of immigration, backing a legislative proposal that would have heavily favored English-speaking, highly educated and high-earning immigrants over lower-skilled and lower-income applicants.

Quietly announced Saturday night, the proposed regulation could give the administration the authority to reshape the population of US immigrants in that direction without legislation.

The rule would mean many green card and visa applicants could be turned down if they have low incomes or little education because they’d be deemed more likely to need government assistance – such as Medicaid or food stamps – in the future.

The proposal applies to those looking to come to the US and those already here looking to extend their stay. And even if immigrants decide not to use public benefits they may be eligible for, the government could, under the proposed rule, still decide they are likely to do so “at any time in the future” and thus reject them from the US.

The administration says the proposed revamp of the so-called public charge rule is designed to ensure immigrants can support themselves financially.

“This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Saturday.

But immigration advocates say it goes far beyond what Congress intended and will discriminate against those from poorer countries, keep families apart and prompt legal residents to forgo needed public aid, which could also impact their US citizen children.

They also say it will penalize even hard-working immigrants who only need a small bit of temporary assistance from the government.

“(The proposed rule) would radically reshape our legal immigration system, putting the wealthy at the front of the line, ahead of hardworking families who have waited years to reunite,” a coalition of more than 1,100 community advocacy groups wrote in a statement this week. “No longer would the US be a beacon for the world’s dreamers and strivers. Instead, America’s doors would be open only to the highest bidder.”

How does it work now?

The “public charge” provision dates back at least to the Immigration Act of 1882. Federal lawmakers at the time wanted to make sure that immigrants would be able to take care of themselves and not end up a public burden.

Under current regulations put in place in 1996, the term is defined as someone who is “primarily dependent” on government assistance, meaning it supplies more than half their income.

But it only counted cash benefits, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income from Social Security.

Immigration officials can take into account an applicant’s financial resources, health, education, skills, family status and age. But few people are rejected on these relatively narrow grounds, experts said.

How would the rule change?

The Trump administration would expand the public charge concept to include more widely used benefits, including Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance and the Medicare drug subsidy for low-income seniors.

It would also vastly expand what’s considered a “public charge,” moving beyond “primary dependence” to anyone who accepts the equivalent of at least 15% of federal poverty guidelines. Under current levels, that would equate to roughly $1,800 a year, or $150 a month in assistance.

In the proposal, DHS says it believes anyone who receives that much assistance “is neither self-sufficient nor on the road to achieving self-sufficiency.”

And the rule would evaluate applicants on the probability that they would ever enroll in one or more of these assistance programs – even if they don’t currently.

This wouldn’t lead to automatic rejections, but would be considered negative factors in a complex formula. For instance, having an income below 125% of the poverty level (roughly $15,200 for an individual or $31,400 for a family of four) would be a negative factor, as would having a large family or being over age 65. But earning more than 250% of the poverty level (about $30,350 for an individual or $62,750 for a family of four) would be a strongly positive factor.

Medical conditions could also be taken into account. The system would give immigration officers a lot of discretion in determining whether people who are sick or have pre-existing conditions would be able to purchase their own health insurance, rather than apply for Medicaid, for instance, or whether large families would be able to buy their own food without turning to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for food stamps.

“It’s more about: Is your current income … someth