WASHINGTON — Trump administration officials announced Saturday that immigrants who legally use public benefits like food assistance and Section 8 housing vouchers could be denied green cards under new rules aimed at keeping out people the administration deems a drain on the country.
The move could force millions of poor immigrants who rely on public assistance for food and shelter to make a difficult choice between accepting financial help and seeking a green card to live and work legally in the United States.
Older immigrants, many of whom get low-cost prescription drugs through the Medicare Part D program, could also be forced to stop participating in the popular benefits program or risk being deemed a “public charge” who is ineligible for legal resident status.
The move is not intended to affect most immigrants who have already been granted green cards, but advocates have said they fear that those with legal resident status will stop using public benefits to protect their status. The regulation, which the administration said would affect about 382,000 people a year, is the latest in a series of aggressive crackdowns by President Trump and his hard-line aides on legal and illegal immigration.
Federal law has always required those seeking green cards to prove they will not be a burden and has taken into consideration the acceptance of cash benefits. But the government has never before considered the use of other public benefits, like assistance for food.
Now, the new regulation — announced on the Department of Homeland Security website — will require that immigration caseworkers consider the use of public benefits to be “heavily weighed negative factors” for those who are applying to remain legally in the country on a permanent basis. Those who are deemed likely to become dependent on government assistance will probably be denied.
The rule would affect people seeking to immigrate to the United States permanently and others who are in the country on temporary visas — including students and workers — who seek to stay permanently.
Immigrants could be asked in limited cases to post cash bonds of at least $10,000 to avoid being denied green cards under the new regulation, which does not need congressional approval but must still go through a public review process before it becomes final. Officials said they expected the regulation to become final after being posted to the Federal Register in the coming weeks and undergoing the 60-day review period.
In a news release, the Department of Homeland Security said the new rule would “ensure that those seeking to enter and remain in the United States either temporarily or permanently can support themselves financially and will not be reliant on public benefits.”
The 447-page rule, titled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” will not apply to families making less than 15 percent of the official poverty designation, officials said.
Pro-immigrant activists predict that poor immigrants will immediately begin withdrawing from public assistance programs — even at the risk of losing needed assistance for food, shelter and medicine — out of a fear that they will be denied green cards and will be deported.
“President Trump just announced a devastating new proposed regulation that would harm countless immigrant families and all of our nation’s communities,” the National Immigration Law Center said in a statement.
There are political implications to the move, which comes less than two months before the midterm elections, which will determine who controls the House and the Senate for the next two years of Mr. Trump’s tenure.
Focusing on the use of public benefits is often an effective way to galvanize conservative supporters. Drawing attention to the use of those benefits by immigrants could be especially persuasive in turning out Mr. Trump’s supporters across the country.
Stephen Miller, the president’s top immigration adviser, has long believed that being tough on immigrants is a winning tactic for Republican candidates who too often — in Mr. Miller’s view — have compromised with Democrats on the issue. He has pushed hard for the new rule during the past several months.
But the breadth of the effect on immigrants could also energize liberal voters to support Democratic candidates. In New York, for example, city officials estimated that under an earlier draft of the regulation, which was leaked to the news media, nearly one million people could be hurt.
They said the children of immigrants who are in the United States legally could be the most vulnerable. Indeed, immigrant parents who work low-wage jobs and rely on assistance may need to remove their children from the programs to keep their families together in the United States. Unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for nearly all public benefits.
Trump administration officials say the rule is intended to promote fiscal responsibility.
“Self-sufficiency has been a basic principle of United States immigration law since this country’s earliest immigration statutes,” the proposal says. It remains United States policy that “the availability of public benefits not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States.”
The government has traditionally considered someone who relies on government cash assistance for more than half of his or her income a public charge. Now, however, officials will take into account whether an individual or a family has received any of an assortment of noncash public benefits, such as aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps; the Section 8 program, which provides housing assistance; or the Medicare prescription drug program for older adults.
“This is long overdue,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, whose research supports decreased immigration. “This country has defined public charge in a fictional way in order to facilitate high levels of low-skilled immigration. But this is simply a 21st-century definition of what public charge is.”
Officials said that the new rule did not apply to refugees or asylum seekers who enter the country, or to legal immigrants who serve in the military. Cash or other assistance given to the immigrant victims of natural disasters would not be counted against them.
Critics of the new rule argue that it deviates from longstanding precedent and from Congress’s original intent for the public-charge statute. They also say it violates states’ rights to provide benefits to children and immigrants experiencing short-term crises.
Nearly 20 million children in immigrant families could be affected by the policy changes, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that examined a draft of the new rule that was even broader than the one announced on Saturday. Almost nine in 10 of those children are United States citizens.
“The proposal is clearly intended to deny basic supports like food, health care and housing to lawfully present immigrants and their families — including millions of children and U.S. citizens — who pay taxes, work, go to school and contribute to our country’s economy,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington wrote in April in a letter to Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the agency that reviews proposed rules before they are published. The mayor of Seattle wrote a similar letter expressing concerns.
In addition to the use of public benefits, the proposed rule also deems certain health conditions — like mental health disorders, heart disease and cancer — to be among the heavily weighed factors. The proposal states that “an alien is at high risk of becoming a public charge if he or she has a medical condition and is unable to show evidence of unsubsidized health insurance.”
It is a Catch-22, said Shawn Fremstad, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Poor immigrants with health conditions must prove that they are insured, but they cannot use the available benefits to enroll.
“It’s a bit like the creation of a castelike system,” Mr. Fremstad said. “Unless you’ve had an ‘American dream’ going for you in your home country, you’re going to have a hard time earning it here. It’s really screening those people.”
Mr. Krikorian does not contest that view.
“This isn’t a moral issue,” he said. “A Honduran with a sixth-grade education level isn’t morally flawed, but he works three jobs and still can’t feed his family. Immigrants with low levels of skill are a mismatch for a modern society like ours.”
The complex web of technicalities surrounding the new rule are difficult to understand, said Charles Wheeler, a legal expert at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, so the number of immigrants who withdraw from programs could exceed even the number who are subject to the rule.