Now the Trump administration wants to limit citizenship for legal immigrants


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is expected to issue a proposal in coming weeks that would make it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens or get green cards if they have ever used a range of popular public welfare programs, including Obamacare, four sources with knowledge of the plan told NBC News.

The move, which would not need Congressional approval, is part of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller's plan to limit the number of migrants who obtain legal status in the U.S. each year.

Details of the rulemaking proposal are still being finalized, but based on a recent draft seen last week and described to NBC News, immigrants living legally in the U.S. who have ever used or whose household members have ever used Obamacare, children's health insurance, food stamps and other benefits could be hindered from obtaining legal status in the U.S.

Immigration lawyers and advocates and public health researchers say it would be the biggest change to the legal immigration system in decades and estimate that more than 20 million immigrants could be affected. They say it would fall particularly hard on immigrants working jobs that don't pay enough to support their families.

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Inside a migrant shelter on the US-Mexico border
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Inside a migrant shelter on the US-Mexico border
Migrant Jeber Hernandez, 14, from El Salvador, who hopes to make it to Los Angeles, stands in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Migrants eat dinner at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Gilda Loureiro, who runs the Juan Bosco migrant shelter, cooks meals for migrants, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Migrants eat dinner at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
The bag of a seven-year-old Honduran migrant, whose family members fear for their lives, is seen at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter where they are staying before attempting to cross the border to the U.S., in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Haitian migrant Volter Petiblen, 24, (R) reads his phone at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Mexican migrant Sergio Medrano, 30, sits in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the U.S., in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Mexican migrant Jose Angel Garcia, 42, holds a crucifix he made as he waits at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the U.S. following two years in an immigration detention center, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Gilda Loureiro, who runs the Juan Bosco migrant shelter, stands in one of the shelter's dormitories, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A migrant talks to his family at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017 REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Migrant Jever Danilo, 14, from El Salvador, who hopes to make it to Los Angeles, stands in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Migrants arrive at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the U.S., in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Rosary beads left by migrants are seen in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017 REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Haitian migrant Volter Petiblen, 24, looks out at Nogalas from the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Mexican migrant Jose Angel Garcia, 42, shows a photo of his mother as he waits at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the U.S. following two years in an immigration detention center, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017 REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Mexican migrant Jaime Manuel Perez Mancinas, 31, holds the hand of a three-year-old Honduran refugee as he waits at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter after being deported from the U.S. following two years in an immigration detention center, in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Religious keepsakes left by migrants are seen in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Haitian migrant Volter Petiblen, 24, (R) waits for dinner at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
The Juan Bosco migrant shelter is seen in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Religious keepsakes left by migrants are seen in the chapel at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017 REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Haitian migrant Volter Petiblen, 24, reads his phone at a the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
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Many are like Louis Charles, a Haitian green-card holder seeking citizenship who, despite working up to 80 hours a week as a nursing assistant, has had to use public programs to support his disabled adult daughter.

Using some public benefits like Social Security Insurance has already hindered immigrants from obtaining legal status in the past, but the programs included in the recent draft plan could mean that immigrant households earning as much as 250 percent of the poverty level could be rejected.

A version of the plan has been sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the sources said, the final step before publishing a rule in the federal register.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said, "The administration is committed to enforcing existing immigration law, which is clearly intended to protect the American taxpayer by ensuring that foreign nationals seeking to enter or remain in the U.S are self-sufficient. Any proposed changes would ensure that the government takes the responsibility of being good stewards of taxpayer funds seriously and adjudicates immigration benefit requests in accordance with the law."

Miller, along with several of his former congressional colleagues who now hold prominent positions in the Trump administration, have long sought to decrease the number of immigrants who obtain legal status in the U.S. each year. And even before the rule is in place, the administration has made it more difficult for immigrants to gain green cards and for green-card holders to gain citizenship.

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Stephen Miller in his White House role
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Stephen Miller in his White House role
Senior advisor Stephen Miller attends a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and congressional leaders to discuss trade deals at the at the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington U.S., February 2, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Senior advisor Stephen Miller (L) and Senior advisor and son-in-law of U.S. President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner (R) attend a breakfast meeting with small business leaders hosted by Trump at the Roosevelt room of the White House in Washington U.S., January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House speech writer Stephen Miller (L) and advisor Jared Kushner (2nd L) join President Donald Trump at a meeting with U.S. congressional leaders in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump's top White House staff, including (L-R) Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Senior Advisors Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, enter the East Room to attend a joint news conference being held by President Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the White House in Washington, U.S., January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Senior Advisor Stephen Miller (R) walk along the colonnade ahead of a joint press conference by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
U.S. Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD) (L-R), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), White House advisor Jared Kushner, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), WHite House speech writer Stephen Miller, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) wait for President Donald Trump to arrive for a reception and meeting with U.S. congressional leaders in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S. January 23, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer removes lint from Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller's jacket as he waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House senior advisors Stephen Miller (C) and Kellyanne Conway arrive prior to a joint news conference between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller takes the president's notes from a White House military aide after a joint news conference between U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (C) arrives with Senior Advisor Stephen Miller (L) and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus for a news conference by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House advisors Stephen Miller (L) and Steve Bannon (R) arrive aboard Air Force One, returning to Washington with U.S. President Donald Trump from a weekend in Florida, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. March 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Senior advisors Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway watch as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller arrives to attend a joint news conference by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller (R) joins Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to discuss U.S. immigration policy at the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller (R) joins Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to discuss U.S. immigration policy at the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller discusses U.S. immigration policy at the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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In fiscal year 2016, the last full fiscal year under the Obama administration, 1.2 million immigrants became lawful permanent residents, or green-card holders, and 753,060 became naturalized U.S. citizens, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Data from the first quarter of fiscal year 2018 indicates that the administration is on track for a decline in immigrants granted green cards by 20 percent and naturalized citizenship will drop by 10 percent by the end of October compared to fiscal year 2016.

Four immigration lawyers practicing in Massachusetts, Virginia, Tennessee and California told NBC News they have noticed a spike in the number of their clients being rejected when seeking green cards and naturalized citizenship.

In a statement, USCIS spokesperson Michael Bars said, "USCIS evaluates all applications fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis."

"Contrary to open borders advocates, immigration attorneys and activists," said Bars, "USCIS has not changed the manner in which applications for naturalization have been adjudicated, as the law generally requires that an eligible applicant must have been properly admitted for permanent residence in order to become a U.S. citizen. ... We reject the false and inaccurate claims of those who would rather the U.S. turn a blind eye to cases of illegal immigration, fraud, human trafficking, gang activity, and drug proliferation at the expense of public safety, the integrity of our laws and their faithful execution."

"I did everything they asked me"

Charles, the Haitian green-card holder who works as a nursing assistant in a psychiatric hospital near Boston, said he was stunned to learn his application for citizenship had been denied. He had used a fake passport given to him by smugglers when he entered the U.S. from Haiti in 1989, but confessed to border officers and received a waiver from USCIS absolving him of his wrongdoing and allowing him to obtain a green card in 2011.

Now 55, Charles is a homeowner and a taxpayer and thought obtaining citizenship would be a smooth process. "I thought in this country everything was square and fair," Charles said.

But when he went for his citizenship interview in August 2017, the USCIS officers told him they were going to revisit the decision to waive the fake passport incident, meaning he could potentially lose his green card as well.

Then he received a letter in September telling him his request for citizenship had been denied.

"I was devastated. And I'm not sure exactly why they did it. I did everything they asked me to."

He appealed the decision, but as he waits for a final verdict, his lawyer says his green-card status may also now be in question.

In late November, the Trump administration announced they would end temporary protected status for Haitians who came to the U.S. after the deadly 2010 earthquake. Charles's wife was a recipient of that protection and without him becoming a citizen, he would be unable to vouch for her.

But Charles's biggest concern is his daughter. Although she is in her 20s and a U.S. citizen, she has severe disabilities that make it impossible for her to live by herself.

Charles is unaware of Miller's new plan to limit citizenship for immigrants who have used public assistance. But it is likely to affect him because he has used public assistance to help care for his daughter, so she could end up further hurting his chances for citizenship.

Though its effects could be far-reaching, the proposal to limit citizenship to immigrants who have not used public assistance does not appear to need Congressional approval. As the Clinton administration did in 1999, the Trump administration would be redefining the term "public charge," which first emerged in immigration law in the 1800s in order to shield the U.S. from burdening too many immigrants who could not contribute to society.

Rosemary Jenks, executive vice president of NumbersUSA, which promotes limited immigration, said the new rule and the increased scrutiny around green card and citizenship applications are all part of a new focus at DHS on enforcing the law and preventing fraud.

"Applications for renewal or adjustment of status that have been filed with the government before are being re-examined to look for fraud," Jenks said.

In light of this, immigration attorneys are cautioning their clients before moving from green-card status to citizenship.

Rose Hernandez is the supervising attorney at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition's naturalization clinic. She said the clinic's model has completely changed in light of the crackdown. She now sends six information requests to government agencies to check on green-card holders' backgrounds before she advises them to file for citizenship. If the government finds something she doesn't, the fear is the applicants could lose their green cards and be sent home.

And other immigration attorneys are preparing to push back fiercely against the public charge rule.

"Any policy forcing millions of families to choose between the denial of status and food or health care would exacerbate serious problems such as hunger, unmet health needs, child poverty, and homelessness, with lasting consequences for families' wellbeing and long-term success and community prosperity," said the National Immigration Law Center in a statement.

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