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What’s behind Trump's new green card rule? Is it really about saving money, or just an excuse to reduce immigration?

The Trump administration's new 'public charge' law purports to reduce the burden of immigration on tax payers. But, the rule appears to deliberately target low income, latino families. What's more, critics say it won't save money and will in fact hurt the U.S. economy.
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18 Ago 2019 – 10:35 AM EDT
The torch of the Statue of Liberty stands out over a full moon. A poem at its base highlights how the country has opened its doors for immigrants, regardless of economic status. But conservatives take issue with that, saying the statue is strictly a beacon of freedom from oppression. Crédito: Julio Cortez / AP

In announcing its new green card regulations on Monday, the White House declared the new policy guidelines were designed to ensure that new immigrants are not a “strain on public resources.”

This was necessary to protect American taxpayers and preserve the social safety net for existing residents, the White House stated.

But some experts question whether those are the true objectives of the policy shift, or do they instead mask an ulterior motive of reducing overall immigration to the United States - especially by low income Latinos - a goal that is dear to the heart of hard liners in the Trump administration but lacks public support or backing on Congress, even among Republicans.

“The goal of the public charge rule is not to save public money, it is to cut the number of people who can get green cards, period,” said Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. “There are so many other ways to save money in welfare programs, where you could save a lot more that don’t require cutting the number of people who are immigrants and it’s telling to me that the administration is not choosing those,” he added.

Republicans hardliners have tried – unsuccessfully - to get Congress to pass legislation to directly cut legal immigration, such as the 2017 RAISE Act which sought to cut the annual number of green cards issued in half, from slightly more than 1 million to 500,000 by eliminating many current categories for family-sponsored immigration.

“They failed to convince Congress to go along with it. So, they have to use regulatory means to go about it,” said Nowrasteh.

The RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act was endorsed by President Trump but met resistance from many Republicans who feared it would hurt key industries in their states, such as agriculture and tourism. It also led to a testy exchange at a White House briefing when Stephen Miller, the president’s policy adviser and a longtime advocate of immigration limits, defended the proposal.

When a reporter read him some of the words from the Statue of Liberty — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” —Miller dismissed them. “The poem that you’re referring to was added later,” he said. “It’s not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Other experts also question the notion that immigrants are an economic burden on the country, citing studies that show that they are a key segment of the work force in some lower skilled industries, while also providing a positive net contribution to the economy after balancing the benefits they receive and the taxes they contribute.

“The Administration’s justification for the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that immigrants currently of modest means are harmful to our nation and our economy, devaluing their work and contributions and discounting the upward mobility immigrant families demonstrate,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research and policy institute in Washington DC.

The new ‘public charge’ rule

Under the new regulations which go into effect October 15, the Trump administration would expand restrictions on legal immigration by denying green cards to low income migrants who lack education and English language skills, and the government suspects might in the future use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.

For more than a century federal law has required those seeking to become permanent residents to prove they will not be a burden to the U.S. — a “public charge,” in government language, but the new rules could potentially raise the standard for eligibility, penalizing those with lower income and education. It would also shift the U.S. toward a merit-based system that rewards immigrants’ skills instead of a long-standing tradition of family reunification.

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New policy could deny green cards to many legal immigrants

Unlike the ongoing crack down on illegal immigration, including recent raids in Mississippi and the continued separation of migrant parents from their children and the U.S. southern border, the new rules to target people who entered the United States legally and are seeking permanent residency.

The new rules already facing legal challenges across the country, and also appear to fly in the face of public sentiment. Thirteen states filed a lawsuit Wednesday, suing the Department of Homeland Security over the new rule saying it is “un-American” as it could force would-be immigrants to forego public benefits for their eligible U.S.-born children.

A new Pew Research Center survey released Monday also found the American public is broadly critical of the administration’s handling of the wave of migrants at the southern border, with nearly two-thirds of Americans — 65% — saying the federal government is doing a very bad or somewhat bad job. The survey found broad support for developing a pathway to legal status for immigrants living in the country illegally.

Defenders of the new rules say the fears of immigrant advocates are greatly exaggerated, noting that the regulations don’t go far enough to change the existing system. “It’s not as big a deal as the advocacy groups are making it out to be. They’re running around with their hair on fire. It’s an important clarification of the rules. But it’s not a game changer,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Washington's most important ‘low-immigration’ think tank that has long advocated for sharply reducing the number of immigrants, as well as prioritizing those with higher education and job qualifications.

In fact, non-citizen immigrants are not an insignificant number of beneficiaries, representing 6.5% of those participating in Medicaid and 8.8% of those receiving food assistance, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data. However, 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.

Because the number of green cards issued annually is set by 1990 law, Krikorian has a point. But expert worry that the new rule could shift the criteria for who is accepted, favoring merit-based employment skills over family ties.

In 2017, around 750,000 green cards – 66 percent of the total – went to people immigrating to the U.S. based on having relatives here, according to official statistics. In contrast, about 138,000 green cards – 12 percent – were issued to immigrants for employment reasons, based on their skills, experience, and education and on the needs of U.S. employers.

The leading countries of birth for the new permanent residents were Mexico (15 percent), China (6.3 percent), and Cuba (5.8 percent).

But that now seems likely to shift. “It’s unlikely it will lead to a reduction in immigrants, but it will lead to a shift. It would reallocate visas to better off people and better educated,” said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “That comes at the expense of Mexicans and Central Americans. We think there should be an emphasis on merit, but it should be job-related, not based on education and wealth, so it balances high and low skills,” he added.

The White House ‘fact sheet’ highlighted that “large numbers of non-citizens and their families have taken advantage of our generous public benefits. It stated that 78 percent of households headed by a non-citizen with no more than a high school education use at least one welfare program. It added that 58 percent of all households headed by a non-citizen use at least one welfare program, and half of all non-citizen headed households include at least one person who uses Medicaid.

Krikorian would have liked to see far more drastic welfare restrictions complaining that the new rule still exempted several programs, including benefits received by non-resident immigrants with U.S.-born children, such as free school lunches and some child tax credits. Krikorian argues that those parents should be excluded too.

“They are responsible for their kids. So, if their kids are getting food stamps, it’s not like a four-year-old is walking into a grocery store and he’s the only one eating the food. That’s money is your pockets too,” he said.


Asked if he was concerned that this would force parents into an impossible choice, Krikorian was unmoved, dismissing the “sentimentality” of immigrant advocates. Many immigrants send remittances back to relatives in their home countries which could be used to look after their children, he pointed out. “It’s up to parents to provide for their own children. A very large share of immigrants sends money home. They have to decide who comes first,” he said.

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Trump’s new immigration policy could affect US citizen children

But immigrant advocates say it’s not a question of sentimentality. “The Administration’s justification for the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that immigrants currently of modest means are harmful to our nation and our economy, devaluing their work and contributions and discounting the upward mobility immigrant families demonstrate,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote in a report published Thursday.

It cited numerous studies that provide evidence that public assistance for young children can improve their health and opportunity later in life. “Denying this assistance or making families too frightened to participate can have costly reverberations, felt not just by immigrant families but native-born workers and the U.S. economy as a whole,” it concluded.

Many experts argue that immigrants are not a public burden and besides performing important low-skilled jobs in agriculture and healthcare, they are also net contributors to the U.S. Social Security system through taxes.

A detailed 500-page study by National Academy of Sciences in 2017 found that immigrants produce around 12 percent of Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the goods and services driving the economy.

“Immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the U.S.,” the study concluded. First-generation immigrants were found to be costlier to governments, mainly at the state and local levels, than native-born citizens, in large part due to the costs of educating their children. But that was quickly reversed by their children, second generation immigrants who were “among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population.”

“While it was also true that the average amount of contributions would go up if lower skilled, lower educated people were excluded under the proposed new rules, the report found that even high school dropout immigrants who enter under the age of 25 had a positive net fiscal benefit to the economy. Only older dropouts had a negative impact.

That was all “poppycock,” said Krikorian. Relying on immigrants to keep the social security system solvent only created an unending need for more immigrants to keep replenishing it.

“Americans today should be the ones deciding how Americans there will be tomorrow,” he said. “In other words, Americans moms and dads should be determining tomorrow’s America’s population, not Congress importing people who will supposedly make up for the defects of Americans.”

The presence of immigrant workers (authorized and unauthorized) in the labor market has made the U.S. economy much larger—perhaps 11 percent larger, an increase equivalent to $1.6 trillion of GDP in 2012 (Borjas, 2013). Extrapolating, in 2016 this contribution to GDP is about $2 trillion.

But critics of the new rule argue that if the cost of welfare is truly what concerns the White House then it should directly address those programs, noting that non-citizens in fact have only limited access to benefits.

“If you are really, really concerned about that then it seems like you should try to cut welfare benefits for those groups. That seems like the easier thing to do than trying to do this complicated tinkering with demographics via green cards. That they are not choosing that tells me something,” said Nowrasteh.

The Department of Homeland Security denies that its new rule is designed to reduce overall immigration levels. However, it said it did seek to “minimize the incentive of aliens to attempt to immigrate to, or to adjust status in, the United States due to the availability of public benefits.”

It also comes at a time that the White House has been trying to strip the Temporary Protective Status for people from Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, and El Salvador; as well as cutting the number of refugees admitted annually to 30,000, the lowest number in 40 years.

There appeared to be some contradictions this week between White House and DHS statements regarding the rules. Oddly, the 200-page DHS document outlining the new rule said it “does not aim to address the U.S. economy, job creation, protection of the social safety net or the “American dream,” curtail spending on public assistance, or ensure that public assistance will be reserved for U.S. citizens.”

That seemed to fly in the face of the White House’s own ‘fact sheet’ which boasted that the new rule would “protect American taxpayers, preserve our social safety net for vulnerable Americans, and uphold the rule of law."

The new rule is designed to be applied in a forward-looking way to predict if a would-be immigrant will be a public burden. 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.

What most worries immigrant advocates is that the new rule, despite being more than 800 pages long, leaves a lot of unanswered questions. “It’s incredibly detailed and incredibly thorough yet very vague and leaves so much discretion up to the individual adjudication officer,” said Capps with the Migration Policy Institute.

A lot will depend on the instructions given to DHS adjudicators on how to interpret the new rule. Those implementing instructions may not be made public, experts fear. That decision will fall to Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a conservative hardliner considered close to Miller.

This week Cuccinelli also made headlines when he questioned the famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “huddled masses” of immigrants to American shores. Cuccinelli said it referred to a different era of “people coming from Europe” and that the United States now needs migrants “who can stand on their own two feet.”

“You could use the rule to disqualify immigrants who don’t speak English or have a high school degree. Or that could be interpreted to have a marginal impact,” said Capps. “We just don’t know how all the different positive and negative factors will be weighted,” said Capps. “There’s so much discretionality in the rule,” he added.

Additional reporting by Javier Figueroa and Ana Alena Azpurua

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