Immigrants Should Support Themselves


Federal law states that “any alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible.” The law stipulates that officials must “at a minimum” consider certain factors such as age, health, and education, but otherwise does not limit the executive branch’s discretion in enforcing this provision.

We wish Congress would not write laws this way. Especially with a matter as consequential as this, the legislature should lay out explicit standards for the executive branch to follow, rather than announcing a broad goal and telling the executive to achieve it however it likes.

But this is the rule on the books, and the goal it announces — to deny visas and green cards to those likely to become dependent on our safety net — is a good one. Special cases such as refugees aside, there is no reason whatsoever for the U.S. to welcome immigrants who cannot support themselves without taxpayer subsidies. Current policy does a horrible job of implementing this principle, and therefore we endorse the Trump administration’s new effort to tighten the policy up. On Saturday, the administration released the text of a rule it will propose formally in the coming weeks.

In determining whether someone in the country is “likely at any time to become a public charge,” an obvious factor to consider is the degree to which they are already dependent on the government. And under the current rule, established by executive fiat about two decades ago, officials do consider whether an applicant is primarily dependent on cash assistance.

The problem is that cash assistance is today but a small part of the welfare state. Other forms of aid, from food stamps to housing to Medicaid, are far more common. The administration estimates that 23 percent of foreign-born noncitizens receive public benefits — but that only 2 percent receive cash assistance in particular.

Trump proposes to broaden the scope of the rule to include many of the other benefits available, and to take benefit use into account even if it doesn’t amount to being “primarily dependent” on the government. The new threshold is benefits amounting to 15 percent of the federal poverty guideline for a household of one in a twelve-month period — $1,821 this year — with separate rules for non-monetizable benefits. Benefit receipt would not be disqualifying in itself, though it would be weighted heavily. Far more applicants would be turned down or required to post bonds that protect the government against losses.

One can, of course, argue the particulars of Trump’s plan, which has already been narrowed substantially relative to previous leaked drafts. For one thing, it should apply only to future immigrants, not to those who arrived before the rule was in effect. (The draft rule is limited, though, to benefits received after the rule was in effect.) We urge the Trump administration to consider such details carefully before finalizing the rule — though we must again emphasize that Trump and company wouldn’t be drawing these lines at all if Congress had done its job.

The central thrust of this rule, however, is entirely correct. Our laws say that immigrants are ineligible for visas and green cards if they are likely to become dependent on the safety net funded by U.S. taxpayers. It’s time to start enforcing that policy.


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