A Draft Regulation on Welfare-Dependent Immigrants

by Robert VerBruggen

Trump plans to better enforce the federal law saying that immigrants can’t come — and can’t get permanent residency or a new visa status if they’re already here — if they’re likely to become a “public charge.” Vox has gotten its hands on a draft of the regulation, and as the publication’s Dara Lind summarizes it:

Right now, the government can only consider use of cash benefits, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, in “public charge” determinations. The Trump administration wants to give officials the power to look at use of other benefits as well, including:

some “educational benefits,” including use of Head Start for children

Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

use of any subsidies, or purchase of subsidized insurance, under the Affordable Care Act

food stamps

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) assistance

Housing benefits, like Section 8

Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

transit vouchers

Using any of these for more than six months in the last two years (before applying for a different visa or a green card) would be considered a “heavily weighted” strike against the immigrant. (That strike could be canceled out if an immigrant was making more than 250 percent of the federal poverty level when applying for the new visa or green card — which, for a family of 4 in 2017, was $60,750.)

We should not take pleasure in yanking benefits away from poor families, but this is a good policy and consistent with the law. We can let into this country only a fraction of the people who would like to come, and many of those who can’t come are left behind in poverty-wracked nations. There is no reason the people who win this lottery — sometimes a literal lottery — should also get taxpayer support, reducing the resources available to our own citizens. It is entirely reasonable for us to insist that people who come here support themselves, and to refuse to grant permanent residency if they fall into government dependency.

As Milton Friedman noted two decades ago, the combination of generous welfare and generous immigration is inherently problematic. The solution written into federal law is to allow a fair amount of immigration and a fair amount of welfare spending — but to keep out immigrants who are likely to use welfare. That is a workable arrangement and one we should enforce better than we do today, given the high rates of welfare use among immigrants, not to mention the fact that the cash benefits we currently consider in “public charge” determinations are a tiny proportion of the overall welfare state.

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