RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Trump administration is changing how it decides who gets to be an American. According to a new rule announced yesterday at the White House, legal immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid will be less likely to stay in the United States. If they use these resources now or if the government determines they might do so in the future, they could see their green card applications delayed or revoked altogether.
Joining us now is Ken Cuccinelli. He's the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Mr. Cuccinelli, thanks so much for being here.
KEN CUCCINELLI: Good to be with you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So this is going to make it harder for would-be Americans who are following the law. These are legal immigrants. Why target them?
CUCCINELLI: We're not - and this is 140-year-old part of our legal immigration system. It's called a public charge rule, the idea of public charge being that one that - isn't supposed to become a public charge, a burden on the government. It doesn't seem like too much to ask to continue that tradition of inviting immigrants here who will not essentially go on welfare. And this self-sufficiency - central to the American value set, and it's also central to our immigration history. And that's what this rule does.
We implement - a 1996 law passed on a bipartisan basis, and the guidance that was put in place after that law passed has proven ineffective. And this rule will make that law effective.
CUCCINELLI: And it implements congressional intent in that regard.
MARTIN: This will negatively affect immigrants who've been using these public services legally, though. I mean, they're going to be punished for something they didn't know was going to be a problem.
CUCCINELLI: That's an excellent question. So this is a prospective rule. It applies starting October 15. And the listed benefits will only be used in the analysis going forward after October 15. So people will not be surprised backwards in time. The only benefits that will count before October 15 are the ones that were listed back in the 1999 guidance from the Clinton era. And those were considerably fewer, so we don't expect many people to be caught up in those.
But going forward - after October 15 and years into the future, this will have more of a meaningful impact as people do make the decision whether or not to use some of those benefits after October 15.
MARTIN: Thank you for that clarification. But the new rule will make it harder to get permanent legal status for anyone who, as you say, may become a public charge at any time in the future.
MARTIN: So how do you go about determining the likelihood of someone getting on public benefits if they are not currently?
CUCCINELLI: For starters, keep in mind that the determination of the potential to be a public charge any time in the future is from Congress. We didn't come up with this. Congress imposed this, and they put factors involved - age, health, financial status, education, skills. These are all in the statute, Rachel. And what this rule does is seek to implement them.
The use of welfare benefits is simply one factor, and it is only one factor. Even if people receive benefits for 12 months out of 36, which is the standard stated in the rule, that's still only one factor. It's a heavily weighted negative factor. But the career Immigration Services officers will make these decisions on a case-by-case basis with all factors considered for each immigrant on a case-by-case basis.
So let's say someone had been on welfare for 12 months when they applied; that would be a heavily negative factor for them. But if they have a job and they, for instance, obtain skills - basis - let's just pick one. Say they're a plumber's apprentice or something. That would be a very positive factor weighing in their favor. All of those go together. It is no one thing that will determine the outcome. But...
MARTIN: So if people who were working...
CUCCINELLI: ...This rule...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
CUCCINELLI: ...Is - this rule is intended to effectively apply that public charge filter going forward, one which has, for a decade or two, been ineffectively applied within USCIS. It's shown up at Border Patrol and the State Department a little more but only a little bit.
MARTIN: So these people working in industries like agriculture or construction, many people in those jobs don't make enough money to make ends meet. Are they less qualified to become American because they earn less?
CUCCINELLI: If they don't have future prospects of being legal permanent residents without welfare, that will be counted against them, yes. And that is the point of the rule. It doesn't seem too much to ask that we have Americans here who aren't likely to go on welfare and become - this is the historic term - a public charge.
MARTIN: If these immigrants...
CUCCINELLI: If this is a...
MARTIN: Go ahead.
CUCCINELLI: This is a - this is part of President Trump keeping his promises. I mean, this is not new or a surprise. This grows out of executive early 2017 - that have led to this rule.
MARTIN: What immigrants are welcome to the United States if these immigrants are not?
CUCCINELLI: All immigrants who can stand on their own two feet, be self-sufficient, pull themselves up by their bootstraps - again, as in the American tradition. My Italian-Irish heritage looks back at that. Most people in America look back at that. And that's what we expect going forward. This is a 140-year-old tradition in this country, legally. And we - President Trump's leadership and he intends to carry this forward, and this role will be an important part of that effort.
MARTIN: Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus' words etched on the Statue of Liberty - give me your tired, your poor - are also part of the American ethos?
CUCCINELLI: They certainly are - give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge. That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge law was passed - very interesting timing.
MARTIN: Although you mention - the American dream is built on this idea that this is a place where you can come and build...
CUCCINELLI: It's part of it.
MARTIN: ...A life.
CUCCINELLI: Yeah, it's part of it.
MARTIN: It's where you can come - there are so many stories, as you know, of people coming to this country with nothing, who may need assistance from the resources that are legally made available to them. This rule appears to change the definition of the American dream.
CUCCINELLI: It certainly does not change what makes America exceptional, and it doesn't change the definition of the American dream. We invite people to come here and join us as a privilege. No one has a right to become an American who isn't born here as an American. America has generously opened its doors for many years, and we continue to do so. We swore in more new American citizens last year than in the four years before that, and that pattern will be continued this year. This rule, we expect...
MARTIN: I'm sorry. I just want to make sure I didn't mishear you. I thought you heard you said - you say that no American can be here who isn't born in America. Did you misspeak?
CUCCINELLI: No, no, no. You did not hear that correctly. It is a privilege to become an American, not a right for anybody who is not already an American citizen. That's what I was referring to. And it's a privilege we've offered to people all around the world for the entire duration of our history. But that privilege has - starts with certain expectations. And for the last 140 years, among those expectation is that the people who will come here will not become a burden on the taxpayers and the government.
And again, that doesn't seem like too much to ask, as we open our doors currently to more than a million new people a year, that they not become a burden on an already, frankly, overburdened and bankrupt welfare system.
MARTIN: Ken Cuccinelli is the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Thank you. We appreciate your time this morning.
CUCCINELLI: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.