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New Policy Could Penalize Immigrant Families Using Food Stamps & Other Public Benefits

In an effort to further crack down on immigration, a new policy released Monday by the Trump administration could impact immigrant families using food stamps, housing vouchers, Medicaid, or other public benefits by denying them green cards, according to a new rule set to be published in the Federal Register later this week. While President Donald Trump has long attempted to deter illegal immigration into the United States, his latest policy change targets individuals and families who entered the country legally and are now seeking permanent status through the proper channels.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the federal government maintains the ability to deny visas or permanent residency to any immigrant it deems to be a "public charge" or financial burden. A rule set to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, however, will change how the government is able to determine who is a "public charge," a recently-released text of the final rule has revealed. Specifically, the new rule requires that any immigrant looking to obtain a change of status or stay extension prove they've not received public benefits such as food stamps, housing vouchers, or Medicaid "over the designated threshold."

Previously, an immigrant was determined to be a "public charge" only if they were found to be "primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense," the rule noted. Non-cash benefits such as Medicaid, housing vouchers, or food stamps obtained through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) were not counted.

The Department of Homeland Security plans to define the "designated threshold" as a period greater than 12 months within a 36-month period, according to the Associated Press. Additionally, the AP reported that in instances where two benefits were received in the same month, they will be counted separately and then added together. For example, someone reported to have been on both Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for a six-month period would, under the new rule, be counted as having 12 months of benefit use.

Amid serious public criticism, the Trump administration was moved to amend the final version of the rule to include some exceptions. Pregnant women on Medicaid or other forms of public assistance, for example, will be considered exempt during their pregnancy and for the first 60 days after childbirth, according to CNN. Immigrants under the age of 21 will also be exempt from the new rule, as are refugees and asylum seekers.

Despite the rule's few exemptions, Politico has reported that advocates, educators, and public health associations warned the rule may result in immigrant parents opting to forgo needed benefits for their children out of fear. In a statement issued Monday, President and CEO of the National WIC Association Douglas Greenaway called the new rule a "sweeping attack on immigrant families" and accused the Trump administration of leveraging federal assistance to keep immigrant families from the American dream.

"As frontline service providers, we cannot turn a blind eye to the ramifications of this policy change," Greenaway said. "Without access to these life-sustaining programs, families and their communities are scrambling to identify how folks will put food on the table and pay for doctor's visits. Even programs that are not swept into the definition of public charge — like WIC — will face a significant chilling effect, as families fear to access any government program."

Greenaway went on to claim that, since the rule was first proposed last September, WIC clinics have seen some nursing mothers fearfully return WIC-issued breast pumps or families reject nutrition assistance out of fear they will face retaliation for using those services. "This fear is real, and families are forced to make devastating choices because of this Administration’s deliberate attack on immigrant families," he said.

While the Department of Homeland Security has said it was moved to broaden its interpretation of "public charge" to "better ensure that aliens subject to the public charge inadmissibility ground are self-sufficient," data shows immigrants don't actually account for a large percentage of those receiving public benefits. Non-citizen immigrants total just 6.5 percent of all those receiving Medicaid, as the AP reported; in contrast, 87 percent of those receiving Medicaid benefits were reported to have been born in the United States.

Immigration advocates have also charged the Trump administration with unfairly targeting low-income immigrants and immigrants who migrate from less affluent countries. In a statement released Monday, the National Immigration Law Center alleged the rule "expands on a century-old practice of penalizing immigrant families who sometimes struggle to make ends meet." The organization, which plans to file a lawsuit challenging the rule, went on to argue the new rule was "a cornerstone of the administration's attempts to redefine our legal immigration system in order to disenfranchise communities of color and favor the wealthy."

While the Trump administration's new rule is set to go into effect in October, critics fear it will ultimately force immigrant families to choose between their health and legal status.