The Trump administration’s top immigration official downplayed the attempted impact of a new proposal that would restrict green cards and visas for immigrants who use public benefits.
Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the proposed “public charge” rule is very specific in the scope of benefits it targets, and the number of immigrants who are eligible for those benefits, or who could become eligible for those benefits, is limited.
“The population of aliens in this country who are eligible to receive public benefits ... is tiny,” Cissna said, referring to the Clinton-era welfare reform law, in a speech at Georgetown University Law Center.
The 1996 Welfare Reform Act cut the number of programs immigrants are eligible for, and limited access to those programs to a smaller set of immigrants.
Cissna said the proposal, which was first announced in late September, will be officially published in the Federal Register and open for comment very soon, “within days.”
The proposal would allow immigration officials to refuse admission and deny extensions to those who might become “public charges.” The list of benefits that would be considered include Medicaid, the Medicare Part D Low-Income Subsidy Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and several housing programs.
Cissna said the proposal is necessary because there currently is no real definition of “public charge” and noted that self-sufficiency has always been a component of U.S. immigration policy.
However, critics say the proposal represents the latest effort by the administration to crack down on legal immigration as part of a strategy to tighten the border. They argue many immigrants will be afraid to use benefits they are eligible for, including health care.
Cissna said there’s a specific list of benefits described in the proposal and urged people not to panic.
“There should not be a mad rush to unsubscribe from all benefits. That is unwarranted, I think,” Cissna said. "People should look carefully at the proposed rule to see exactly, truly what we're looking at when we're making that assessment.”
The administration estimated the rule would affect about 382,000 people per year.
Updated at 4:50 p.m.