Trump Could Try to Deport Legal Immigrants Who Get Federal Benefits

If Trump starts treating legal immigrants who receive federal benefits as deadbeats, what’s to stop him from applying that term to citizens, too? Photo: AFP/Getty Images

The administration doesn’t just want to restrict legal and illegal immigration — it wants to make more immigrants illegal and thus deportable.

The first big move in this direction was the president’s recent immigration proposal to Congress, which offered a path to citizenship for Dreamers in exchange for, among other things, major changes in the number and type of people who are allowed to enter the country legally.

Now comes a very different kind of initiative that Trump may try to implement by executive order: new rules that can make use of a broad variety of public benefit programs grounds for not granting citizenship or actually being deported, even for people who follow all of the rules of legal immigration.

The lever the administration plans to apply, according to a draft executive order, is an old and not-very-frequently-applied principle whereby prospective immigrants judged to be a “public charge” — i.e., people completely dependent on the government — can be excluded from the country, even if they are otherwise eligible to come in. Under the proposed new rule, any use of nonemergency and unearned government benefits could become grounds for exclusion or deportation, even if the person involved is contributing (or will soon contribute) significantly to the workforce and to the U.S. Treasury. Here’s what that could mean in a practical manner, according to an immigration think tank:

Under current interpretation, green-card holders may become deportable as public charges only if they use cash welfare or are institutionalized in long-term care funded by the government. (Under the welfare law, they can only be deported as public charges within their first five years of U.S. residency.) If implemented as written in the leaked executive order, legal immigrants could be ordered deported for using a wide variety of benefits, potentially including food and nutrition assistance, federally subsidized health insurance through Medicaid or the ACA, and education benefits.

And it gets worse. Sponsors for legal immigrants could soon get payment-overdue notices from the Feds for any benefits the people they sponsor receive:

The draft order also instructs federal agencies to request reimbursement for benefits used by legal immigrants. (The welfare law currently allows agencies to collect benefits used by LPRs who have not become citizens or who have not worked for at least ten years.) The government would need to determine the cost of benefits used by each immigrant, locate his or her sponsor, send a notice requesting payment, and ultimately pursue the sponsor legally or hire a collection agency.

The crucial sleight of hand in this draft order is to treat anyone receiving public benefits, however small or appropriate or justified on humanitarian grounds, as a deadbeat. That’s made plain in the leaked document:

“Non-citizens who receive public benefits are not self-sufficient and are relying on the U.S. government and state and local entities for resources instead of their families, sponsors or private organizations,” the document states. “An alien’s receipt of public benefits comes at taxpayer expense and availability of public benefits may provide an incentive for aliens to immigrate to the United States.”

And there’s your supposed nexus to “securing the borders” and the fight against illegal immigration: If we let legal immigrants get benefits of any kind, it will be a “magnet” for the undocumented.

Except that it doesn’t really make sense to think that people are going to cross the border illegally in order to get relatively small and random federal benefits — particularly since the biggest potential benefit, access to public schools, is excluded from the order because the courts have deemed it a right. And in any event, treating beneficiaries of programs like Medicaid as presumptively deadbeat (when arguably the public benefits significantly from their better health) is a concept that can easily be applied to citizens as to noncitizens. It’s indeed a slippery slope when you start treating poor or needy people as scum.

According to an analysis from Reuters, the proposed new rule would mostly come into play for legal immigrants applying for the permanent-resident status that puts them on the road to citizenship.

The rules would not apply to permanent residents applying for citizenship, but would apply to a wide range of people living or working in the United States, including close family members of U.S. citizens and workers employed by U.S. companies.

It’s unclear how close the administration is to promulgating the order or something very much like it. But if it is released, there will be legal challenges and political blowback. A big part of the rationale for the infamous Proposition 187 that California voters approved in 1994 denying state benefits to undocumented immigrants was the supposed burden they placed on taxpayers. It wound up offending legal immigrants so much that it damaged GOP prospects in California for a very long time. This latest gambit isn’t even squarely aimed at the undocumented. It’s not going to go over well with those who have played by the rules and are still being stigmatized.

Trump May Try to Deport Legal Immigrants Who Get Benefits