AILSA CHANG, HOST:
So the rule change announced today hinges on an old term called public charge. It refers to people at risk of becoming a burden on U.S. taxpayers. And as we just heard, federal immigration law has taken that into account for a long time. For more on the impact of expanding who falls into that category, we called up Randy Capps. He's research director of the Migration Policy Center (ph).
RANDY CAPPS: Thank you so much for having me on.
CHANG: Now, I understand you have crunched the numbers, like, on how many people are likely to be impacted by this policy. How many more people do you think will now be considered a public charge compared to before?
CAPPS: Well, it all depends on how they use this new test that they're implementing about who's likely to use public benefits in the future. They list a bunch of different things that could be considered against people when they're applying for green cards. And we looked at some of these things, like not being able to speak English well, not having a high school degree, not working, not having health insurance coverage. And 69% of recent green card holders in the country, we estimate, had one of these negative things. Forty-three percent had two negative things, and 17% had three negative things. So it really depends on how many things basically have to count against someone before they're disqualified from getting a green card.
CHANG: So it sounds like it's still pretty squishy, I mean, that there is still a lot of room for discretion when a government official is trying to decide if someone is a public charge or not.
CAPPS: Yes, there's a lot of discretion. The rule is very dense. It's over 800 pages. It's very detailed. And at the same time, it's really vague because it's basically up to the individual officer, as they say in the rule, to weigh the circumstances in totality. So it does leave officers a lot of discretion.
CHANG: Now, we've heard a lot about illegal immigration from this administration, but this whole public charge topic is about legal immigration. So how does this latest change fit into the Trump administration's broader efforts to reform legal immigration to the U.S.?
CAPPS: The Trump administration has repeatedly asked Congress to pass a law that would restrict legal immigration, narrowing it to people who have a higher level of education, certain skills, English ability - what they term merit. Having more merit would be the main thing that would get people into the country with a green card not family ties and some of the other things in current U.S. immigration law.
This rule kind of accomplishes the same thing by backdoor. It's using that same kind of merit definition that someone has to have a certain level of education, a certain income or assets, English proficiency and all these other factors in order to get into the country legally. So it really is aimed at restricting legal immigration.
CHANG: How do you see this new rule affecting how much people might be willing to apply for benefits going forward now, benefits like food stamps or Medicaid?
CAPPS: Well, we've already seen evidence in surveys that have been done nationally and in stories in some cities across the country that people are stopping using benefits or not applying for them. We've seen withdraws not just from programs like food stamps and Medicaid that are listed in the rule, but also other programs that aren't, like Women, Infant, Children benefits and free lunches in schools.
What people are finding is that immigrants are scared. They're worried they don't understand what this rule is or what it's going to be, and it's being implemented in a context of a lot of other attacks on immigrant populations. And already we're hearing stories as high as 15 or 20% percent of immigrants may be withdrawing from the benefits that they're eligible for.
CHANG: Randy Capps of the Migration Policy Institute, thank you very much for joining us today.
CAPPS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.