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Biden administration proposes limiting consideration of public benefits for green card applications

The Biden administration on Thursday proposed new regulations that would limit the number of public benefits that can weigh against immigrants applying for permanent U.S. residency, or green cards. 

Under the proposal, U.S. immigration caseworkers would only consider participation in income assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, as well as long-term government-funded institutionalization, when determining whether immigrant applicants could become a "public charge," or economic burden, on the country.

The proposed rule, which will be open to comments from the public, would effectively codify guidance issued by the Clinton administration that limited public charge determinations to government cash assistance and long-term institutionalization financed by the government.

The proposal is also a stark departure from public charge rules put in place by the Trump administration, which dramatically expanded the type and number of public benefits that would count against green card applicants to include housing vouchers, food stamps and Medicaid.

While the Trump administration argued that the changes, which also included more stringent income-based requirements, promoted "self-sufficiency" among immigrants, advocates denounced the 2019 rule as a wealth test targeting low-income immigrant communities.

In March 2021, the Biden administration stopped defending the Trump-era public charge rule from several legal challenges and discarded it following the reinstatement of court orders that had concluded the 2019 changes were illegal.

"The 2019 public charge rule was not consistent with our nation's values," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Thursday. "Under this proposed rule, we will return to the historical understanding of the term 'public charge' and individuals will not be penalized for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them."

The Department of Homeland Security, which administers green card petitions, said the 2019 rules scared immigrants from accessing critical public benefits, echoing concerns raised by immigrant advocates over the past four years.

The "public charge" term was first included in U.S. immigration law in the late 19th century, when the federal government started restricting immigration, particularly from non-European countries.

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