The Trump administration is considering new rules that would make it more difficult for immigrants to be admitted to the US or get green cards if they or their children receive certain public benefits, including some forms of Medicaid or Head Start.
The plan could lead to substantially higher numbers of immigrants being blocked from staying in the US.
According to a draft obtained by CNN, the Department of Homeland Security is considering revamping a rule from the 1990s to vastly expand the grounds on which immigrants can be denied green cards or visa extensions and to place a higher bar for immigrants to prove their income and means.
The law currently authorizes DHS to reject immigrants if they are or are likely to become a "public charge" -- dependent on government. Current guidance includes some forms of "cash benefits" but exempts a number of programs from consideration, especially those that support the children of immigrants who are US citizens and eligible for benefits that immigrants otherwise are not.
The new proposal would include programs like some forms of Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, food stamps, subsidized health care under Obamacare, and Head Start education programs as demerits against an immigrant's application to be in the US.
Some forms of public assistance would still be exempt, such as emergency disaster relief or school lunch programs.
Reuters first reported that DHS is considering proposing the rule.
A source familiar told CNN the proposal is under active consideration by top levels of US Citizenship and Immigration Services and would be so robust only if it were the product of months of work and a substantial investment of time by the department. It would still need to go through a full formal comment period once published before it could be implemented.
DHS spokesman Tyler Houlton wouldn't confirm the proposal but said the administration is concerned about taxpayer dollars.
"The administration is committed to enforcing existing immigration law, which is clearly intended to protect the American taxpayer," Houlton said. "Any potential changes to the rule would be in keeping with the letter and spirit of the law -- as well as the reasonable expectations of the American people for the government to be good stewards of taxpayer funds."
USCIS spokesman Jonathan Withington wouldn't comment on any potential actions.
"No decision about public charge is final until the rule-making process is completed," he said.
President Donald Trump and administration officials have called for a merit-based immigration system and have advocated proposals that would substantially curtail legal immigration and tilt the playing field toward highly educated and highly paid immigrants.
"It's a cruel and heartless way, saying you have to choose between providing for your families and your children and becoming a lawful resident of this country," said Alvaro Huerta, a staff attorney at the pro-immigrant National Immigration Law Center, who reviewed the proposal. He noted especially that anyone who wanted health care under Obamacare and took a subsidy would be considered potentially a public charge the next time they want to renew their visa.
Huerta noted that many of the programs "aren't necessarily what we would consider welfare and public services" and are used by many families in the US. "These are programs that they're eligible for," he said.
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