What we know about Trump’s proposal to punish immigrants who receive public benefits

New American citizens watch a congratulatory video from President Donald Trump 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.
New American citizens watch a congratulatory video from President Donald Trump 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. Getty Images

Reports that the Trump administration is preparing to deny U.S. citizenship to immigrants who receive any sort of income-based public assistance have unleashed a wave of concern in South Florida.

But the plan has not been approved yet, the published reports are confusing and it could be months before any change related to public benefits and immigration could be approved and take effect.

Lawyers interviewed on Miami radio stations Wednesday morning counseled Cuban immigrants not to apply for citizenship because it would be denied, based on the fact that they have received public assistance in the past.

But that was rash advice, experts said, because no new regulations have been published.

“The first thing that people need to know is that there isn’t a final proposal that we have seen yet,” said Mark Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), based in Washington D.C., and coauthor of a report on the impact of a possible change. The official proposal would require a period of time for comments and discussions, and could take months to go into effect, he said.

“For anyone who is currently considering applying for citizenship, it is important to understand that there is not a new rule, that the standards have not changed and, while the government is considering making changes for the future, they are not in effect now,” Greenberg said.

An NBCNews report Tuesday said legal immigrants could be denied permanent residence and citizenship if they or their relatives have received any public assistance through programs such as Obamacare, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — or tax credits. If approved, the new policy would redefine what is considered a “public charge” as well as the criteria that government officials must follow in order to make decisions on immigration status.

“This is an unjust, cruel and discriminatory policy that will negatively impact many in our community,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a South Florida Republican. “Stephen Miller, the presumed author of this anti-immigrant measure, has made it his mission to persecute immigrants without any reason.”

There are different versions about the content of the apparent proposal.

A draft obtained by the Washington Post in March and reviewed by MPI indicated that the change would affect only those who want to enter the United States, extend their U.S. visas or apply for permanent residence — not those who apply for citizenship.

What’s more, certain groups of immigrants are protected by existing laws and should not be affected by the new policy.

The draft made public in March includes exceptions for several categories of immigrants, among them Cubans who apply for permanent residence through the Cuban Adjustment Act, Central Americans with Temporary Protected Status, Haitian refugees and others with refugee or asylum status.

Existing laws exempt refugees and other categories of immigrants, among them the majority of Cuban immigrants, from the “public charge” inadmissibility policy. Title V of the Refugee Education and Assistance law from 1980 gives Cubans and Haitians with legal status the right to receive some public benefits such as access to Medicaid and food coupons.

Several experts told el Nuevo Herald that the “public charge” rule cannot be applied to permanent residents who are applying for citizenship. The law stipulates that the rule applies only when someone is seeking admission into the United States or applies for an adjustment of status, such as permanent residence.

It’s not clear if NBCNews saw the same draft as The Washington Post.

Congress members from South Florida could not confirm the NBCNews report. Legislative aides to Cuban American Republicans in Congress said they had seen only a draft similar to what the Washington Post reported in March. They understood that Cubans and Haitians who receive refugee benefits would be exempt.

A Department of Homeland Security official declined to detail the proposed changes but said that “while the text of our immigration statutes generally requires that aliens not be a burden to the Federal taxpayers, these public benefit rules have been ignored for decades.

“Non-citizen public benefit usage is deeply unfair to U.S. taxpayers,” the official added. “Any large nation with generous welfare programs would run massive deficits if it allowed any non-citizen in the world to immigrate and obtain any type of federal welfare benefits.”

Florida is the state with the fourth highest number of families with at least one non-citizen member who receives at least one income-based public benefit from the federal government, such as food stamps, subsidized health care or Social Security benefits, according to an MPI report using updated figures from the U.S. Census.

About 832,600 Florida residents who are not citizens received some type of benefit based on their income, according to the MPI report. The report does not clarify how many of the recipients are permanent residents (green card holders), can access refugee benefits or have asylum.

The Trump administration, which has tightened immigration policies, has portrayed the proposed changes as popular with voters.

The DHS official said 73 percent of voters approve requiring all arrivals to be financially self-sufficient and not depend on public benefits. But that’s different from denying permanent residence and even citizenship to legal immigrants who make use of public benefits to which they are entitled under current laws.

“Many immigrants work hard to make ends meet, and at times they are forced to depend on public benefits. But that should not disqualify those people from fulfilling their American Dream,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “This policy would be a step in the wrong direction and send the message that the United States does not want new talents or workers.”

Most immigrants who receive public benefits are also workers. According to the MPI report, 63.3 percent of non-citizens aged 16 to 64 who received one or more public benefits in Florida were employed, compared to 50.3 percent of recipients born in the United States.

“What allegedly the administration is seeking to do is very troubling, because it simply wants to discriminate against immigrants who legally sought public assistance because they needed it and qualified for it,” said Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo. “I have no proof the administration is going to proceed with this proposal. I hope they don’t but if they do, I will fight it.”

Experts say that the proposal would likely be challenged in court.

“If the [final proposal] is similar to the draft we have seen [from March] it is likely that there would be legal challenges in court, because this is such a big departure from the standards that have applied until now to determine public charge,” said Greenberg. “There would likely be challenges saying that it is inconsistent with the intent of Congress.”

This story has been updated.

McClatchy reporter Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report from Washington.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres and Brenda Medina on Twitter: @ngameztorres and @BrendaMedinar