The White House is in the final stages of creating a proposal to clarify what constitutes a “public charge” when considering applications for U.S. citizenship. The Trump administration wants to prevent the American welfare system from becoming further burdened by taking into account “whether an alien is likely at any time to become a public charge under section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).”

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a “public charge” is “an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence…”

This is not a radical new change. In fact, the United States has always reserved the right to refuse citizenship to anyone who could not demonstrate an ability to financially support themselves and their families. Public charge clauses were first codified into federal law with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1882 which, in part, gave the federal government authority to restrict the entry of “any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge.”

Unfortunately, the likelihood of an individual to become a public charge is hardly considered in the immigration process anymore.

From 2013 through 2016, the United States immigrant population grew at a net rate of approximately 530,000 individuals each year. The Census Bureau’s 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) revealed that approximately 50 percent of households headed by an immigrant used some form of welfare for themselves or another person in their household. The survey also indicated that approximately 90 percent are likely to remain on some form of welfare after 20 years, based on historical numbers.

For Medicaid alone, the same SIPP survey suggests that nearly 80,000 new immigrants enroll in the program each year. The average annual cost-per-enrollee for Medicaid was $5,736 in Fiscal Year 2014, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If the current public charge rule is clarified to prioritize giving citizenship to those who demonstrate an ability to support themselves, and is implemented by 2020, the United States could see up to 1.1 million fewer immigrants enrolled in Medicaid by 2030, based on current population trends. Considering the average cost-per-enrollee, that could lead to a gross savings as high as $6.4 billion in the same time period.

Historically, immigrants were expected to assimilate into United States culture and carry their own weight financially. The federal government has all but abandoned this common-sense approach, opting instead for a system that favors family ties. Because of this, those who have much to offer the United States are often passed over for those who are likely to become a public charge.

It’s in the best interests of U.S. citizens to consider whether an applicant for citizenship will become a long-term public charge. This would prioritize merit-based applicants, and potentially save taxpayers billions of dollars every year.

Spencer Raley writes for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). 

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