The Trump administration just threw another obstacle at low-income immigrants by narrowing who can qualify for waivers of expensive fees associated with their applications for green cards, US citizenship, work permits, and dozens of other benefits.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Friday that, starting December 2, it will no longer consider use of certain public benefits in determining whether an immigrant is eligible for a fee waiver.
That means that fewer immigrants will be able to afford to pay the hefty fees for citizenship applications and green cards — which are typically $1,225 and $725 respectively — especially if they want to apply on behalf of multiple family members.
Legal aid groups say it could affect tens of thousands, or up to two-thirds, of applicants annually who seek fee waivers.
The policy change is one of many ways the Trump administration has recently sought to prevent low-income immigrants from entering and remaining in the US. And it reflects the philosophy that acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli once described, amending Emma Lazarus’s famous poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet.”
Immigrants could previously qualify for fee waivers based on any one of three criteria: If their annual household income was 150 percent of the federal poverty line or lower, if they could prove financial hardship, or if they receive certain public benefits for those in poverty known as “means-tested benefits.”
Those kinds of public benefits — which include Medicaid, CHIP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — are primarily reserved for naturalized and US-born citizens, green card holders, refugees, and asylees.
By eliminating waiver eligibility for immigrants using these benefits, the administration will instead force them to prove that they are facing financial hardship, which is a much more difficult process requiring substantial documentation and usually the help of an attorney.
USCIS defended the move Friday as a way to cut costs and standardize the criteria for who is eligible for a fee waiver, given that means-tested benefit eligibility varies substantially from state to state. But advocates have called it another attack on legal immigration.
“Once again, the administration is using every lever it can find to restrict legal immigration,” Doug Rand, a former White House official who worked on immigration issues in the Obama administration, said in a statement. “The obvious purpose of this latest action is to make it more difficult for low-income green card holders to apply for U.S. citizenship, in a way that sidesteps the typical rulemaking process where [the administration] has been so often frustrated in court.”
It’s one of several policies the Trump administration has pursued recently targeting low-income immigrants.
The administration’s “public charge” rule, published in August and recently blocked in federal court, would have given immigration officials much more leeway to turn away immigrants applying to enter the US, extend their visa or convert their temporary immigration status on the basis that they are likely to end up depending on public benefits. Researchers estimated it could have affected more than 382,000 people.
President Donald Trump issued a proclamation earlier this month barring immigrants who do not have health insurance and cannot afford to pay medical care costs from getting visas of almost any kind to enter the US.
And he issued another executive order in September allowing states that do not have the resources to support refugees in becoming “self-sufficient and free from long-term dependence on public assistance” to turn them away.