By Tessa Berenson and Brian Bennett
Updated: August 13, 2019 2:33 PM ET | Originally published: August 12, 2019

Immigration groups vowed to fight a Trump Administration plan to deny green cards to applicants who use Medicaid, food stamps and other forms of public assistance, as experts warned the change would disproportionately affect low-income immigrants.

Starting Oct. 15, if an applicant for a green card is deemed “more likely than not” to become a “public charge” for using Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance for more than 12 months in aggregate within any 36 month period, it will be weighed as “heavily negative factor” in considering the application, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, announced on Monday.

Federal law already allows immigration officials to ensure that applicants would not burden the United States by being what is called a “public charge,” but the Trump Administration’s new rule clarifies and broadens what forms of public assistance are applicable.

“It’s an effort to limit migration into the U.S. to wealthy people,” says John Sandweg, who served as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Obama. The rule, Sandweg says, is part of the Trump administration’s broader effort to reduce legal immigration. The rule also puts a lot of power in the hands of U.S. consular officials interviewing green card applicants overseas. It will be up to those officials to make a determination if someone will end up needing government assistance after arriving in the U.S. Green card applicants already in the U.S. can appeal a decision to a federal court, but those applying from outside the country don’t have any legal recourse to challenge a denial, Sandweg says.

The National Immigration Law Center tweeted that the rule is “a race motivated wealth test” and said, “We WILL fight back.”

Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School, said in a statement he is also concerned about the amount of leeway it grants the government in deciding whether or not someone is likely to use public benefits.

“In this Administration, that is likely to mean more denials based on public charge concerns,” Yale-Loehr says.

Cuccinelli rejected the argument that this rule targets low-income people. “A poor person can be prepared to be self sufficient,” he said. “Many have been through the history of this country. So let’s not look at that as the be-all, end-all, and it’s not the deciding factor.”

Other critics of the rule worry that it will have a chilling effect on immigrants using public assistance programs that they need for fear that it will hurt their chances of getting a green card. A July 2019 Urban Institute study found that nearly one in seven adults in immigrant families reported that they or a family member did not participate in a non-cash government benefit program in 2018 because they didn’t want to risk their ability to get a green card as the administration considered this new rule. “Health and well-being outcomes may be affected by this reluctance to interact with medical providers, schools, police, and other key institutional settings in communities where adults and children receive services and engage in routine activities,” the study says.

Cuccinelli argues that immigrants who have used these benefits can still advocate for getting a green card or legal status. “If you’re talking about an applicant who has the skills necessary to make their own way and to work their way out of that situation, that’s the case they make” to an Immigration Services Officer, Cuccinelli said. “But we do want to avoid, looking to the future, a situation where people who are adjusting status do in the future become dependent on those public benefits.”

Proponents of the Trump administration’s move say it protects American taxpayers’ interests and promotes self-sufficiency. “The Trump Administration deserves credit for protecting American taxpayers’ interests first and foremost with these rules, which are entirely consistent with a more merit-based, economy-driven U.S. immigration system,” said Ken Oliver, an immigration expert at Texas Public Policy Foundation, in a statement.

Cuccinelli said Monday that USCIS had not determined a specific dollar-amount figure of what the potential benefit of this rule is to taxpayers.

“This is a more realistic definition of welfare,” says Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors lower immigration levels. “The basic idea is we shouldn’t be letting people move here that can’t pay their own bills.” Krikorian expects the rule to have “limited impact,” because, in his view, “a lot of people seeking green cards are already dropping out of or not enrolling in welfare programs.”

The new rule may soon draw challenges in court from immigrants’ rights groups and state attorneys general, which has become a common occurrence as the Trump Administration has attempted to crack down on both legal and illegal immigration. “The Trump Administration can’t blow its nose without the resistance judiciary saying he’s not allowed to do it,” says Krikorian.

Pro-immigration groups have already vowed to get the courts involved.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s newly-finalized regulation means that if you’re not white & not wealthy, you’re not welcome in the US,” tweeted United We Dream. “We, alongside our allies, intend to fight the cruel rule.”

Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, called the rule “vile” in a tweet and said it is an “attack on families and lower income communities of color,” and threatened “to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians.”

Cuccinelli said the new rule is not racially motivated and does not target Latinos, whether or not it disproportionately affects them. “We’re simply making effective what Congress had already put on the books, so there’s no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them,” he said. “If we’d been having this conversation 100 years ago, it would have applied to more Italians.” (Cuccinelli had spoken earlier in the briefing about his Italian grandfather sponsoring other family members to come to the United States.)

Cuccinelli’s appearance behind the podium in the White House briefing room represented an increasingly unusual occurrence. Stephanie Grisham has not held a formal press briefing since she took over as White House press secretary at the end of June. The last televised press briefing by a White House press secretary, which traditionally had been held daily in other administrations, was in March.

Correction, Aug. 13

The original version of this story misstated the day Ken Cuccinelli announced the new green card policy. It was Monday, not Wednesday.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@time.com.

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