A controversial Department of Homeland Security (DHS) draft proposed rule leaked to the media would make it more difficult for legal immigrants who have received public benefits to become U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Immigrants and their immediate family members, including U.S. citizen children, would be included. Currently, immigrants who are likely to become a burden on the government can already be excluded, but the draft rule would expand the definition of impermissible public benefits to include programs like certain Affordable Care Act subsidies, SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), subsidized benefits under Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Also included in the draft rule is a proposal to amend the extension of stay and change of status regulations to allow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to consider whether an applicant is using or receiving, or likely to use or receive, public benefits. If implemented, the rule could affect an estimated 20 million immigrants.

The draft rule states that one of the principal problems with the current definition of public charge is that it tests whether the noncitizen is “primarily dependent on the government.” “Primary dependence entails a finding that an applicant for admission or adjustment of status is 50 percent or more dependent on the government. DHS does not believe that an alien must be 50 percent or more dependent on the government to be considered a public charge,” the draft rule notes. DHS is also proposing to define “public “benefit as “any government assistance in the form of cash, checks or other forms of money transfers, or instruments and non-cash government assistance in the form of aid, services, or other relief, that is means-tested or intended to help the individual meet basic living requirements such as housing, food, utilities, or medical care. This includes certain non-cash as well as cash public assistance.”

The draft rule also proposes to codify the “totality of the circumstances” standard used in making public charge determinations. DHS’s proposed standard would involve weighing all the positive and negative considerations related to a person’s “age, health, family status, assets and resources, financial status, education and skills, any required affidavit of support, and any other factor or circumstance that may warrant consideration in the determination.” DHS would also consider the noncitizen’s immigration status as part of this determination. The draft rule proposes that certain factors and circumstances would carry heavy weight. Otherwise, the weight given to an individual factor would depend on the particular facts and circumstances of each case and the relationship of the factor to other factors in the analysis. “For negative factors, some facts and circumstances may be mitigating while other facts and circumstances may be aggravating. Any factor or circumstance that decreases the likelihood of an applicant becoming dependent on public benefits is mitigating. Similarly, any factor or circumstance that increases the likelihood of an applicant becoming dependent on public benefits is aggravating,” the draft rule states.

The draft rule also would propose that USCIS consider a past request or receipt of a fee waiver as part of the financial status factor: “Requesting or receiving a fee waiver for an immigration benefit suggests a weak financial status. In general, a fee waiver is granted based on an alien’s inability to pay the fee. An inability to pay a fee for an immigration benefit suggests an inability to be self-sufficient,” the draft rule states.

The draft rule notes that some immigrant and nonimmigrant immigrant categories are exempt from public charge inadmissibility. According to the draft, DHS plans to propose listing these categories in the regulation. In addition, DHS proposes to list in the regulation the applicants whom the law allows to apply for a waiver of the public charge inadmissibility ground. DHS also proposes to exclude certain public benefits, such as public education, from consideration for purposes of this draft rule.

“Heavily weighted negative factors” under the draft rule would include a lack of employability; receipt or use of one or more public benefits; medical condition(s) without non-subsidized health insurance; a previous finding of inadmissibility or deportability based on public charge. Heavily weighted positive factors include significant income, assets, and resources. “DHS proposes to consider it a heavily weighted positive factor if the alien has financial assets, resources, support, or annual income of at least 250 percent of the [federal poverty guidelines].” Benefits excluded from consideration would include Federal Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance benefits; veterans’ benefits; government pension benefits, government employee health insurance; government employee transportation benefits; unemployment and worker’s compensation; Medicare benefits (“unless the premiums are partially or fully paid by a government agency); state disability insurance; in-state college tuition; government student loans; and small amounts of public benefits as defined in the draft rule.

The draft rule lists several categories of noncitizens who are exempt from admissibility based on public charge considerations, including refugees and asylees; Amerasian immigrants; Afghan and Iraqi Special Immigrants serving as translators with the U.S. Armed Forces; those applying for adjustment of status under the Cuban Adjustment Act; those adjusting status under certain sections of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act; and Haitians adjusting status under the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act.

The categories and programs could change under any final rule. Any changes would come out first as a proposed rule with time for comments, and it could be a year or longer before any new rule is finalized. Moreover, any final rule could be subject to litigation.

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