Washington — The Trump administration on Monday rolled out a key item in its hardline immigration agenda that had been months in the making, issuing a sweeping rule targeting legal immigrants who use welfare benefits like food stamps and government-subsidized housing. 

The new regulation — detailed in a more than 800-page long document — would dramatically expand the government's definition of the centuries-old term "public charge," effectively making it more difficult for certain low-income immigrants to secure permanent residency or temporary visas. The final and enforceable version of the rule is scheduled to be officially published on the Federal Register Wednesday and slated to go into effect in October. 

The rule affects most aspects of life for immigrants — from medical care and English language proficiency, to food stamps and other welfare programs. Critics say discussion of the rule's roll out had already been having a "chilling effect" on many immigrant communities, including households and families who are not directly affected by it on paper.

Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner and the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency which administers benefits for immigrants, touted the change as a way to promote "self sufficiency" and "success" among immigrant communities. 

"Through the public charge rule, President Trump's administration is reenforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility ensuring immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America," Cuccinelli told reporters at the White House on Monday. 

What is a public charge?

The "public charge" standard was first codified into U.S. immigration law in 1882 — the same year the U.S. enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the entry of Chinese laborers into America on the premise that immigration from China endangered "the good order of certain localities." The term essentially means being a burden on society. 

It was also included in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which stipulated that those who were deemed a "public charge" would be subject to deportation or barred from entering the country.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration issued guidance effectively saying that only cash benefits — like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — could be considered when determining whether an immigrant was a "public charge."

What would the new regulation do?

Immigration authorities currently ask green card applicants to prove they won't be a burden on the country, but the new regulation, if enacted, would require caseworkers to consider the use of government housing, food and medical assistance such as the widely-used Section 8 housing vouchers, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicare's Part D prescription drug coverage. 

The rule would subject immigrant households who fall below certain income thresholds to the "public charge" test — which would also consider how well applicants speak, read and write English. Under the proposed rule, any diagnosed medical condition that requires extensive medical treatment would also "weigh heavily" in evaluations by caseworkers. 

Asylum seekers and refugees would be exempt from this "public charge" test.

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