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Ireri Bravo, part of the immigrant advocacy group We Belong Together, carries her daughter Elena during the "Day of Action" event outside the ICE offices en Las Vegas on June 1, 2018. Photo by Luz Gray.

The Trump administration revealed plans Monday to make legal status harder to attain for low-income immigrants who have used public assistance — a policy that is drawing sharp criticism and threats of a lawsuit from Nevada Democrats.

During a press conference, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli announced plans to implement a final public charge rule that would deny green cards and other immigration benefits to applicants who use food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, housing subsidies, Supplemental Security Income (SSI, for people with disabilities), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other types of public assistance for an aggregate of 12 months within a 36-month period. Using two programs for a month counts as two months.

Although plans for a change in the Federal Register had already been announced last October, the government officially offered details Monday on what the rule would entail, who it affects and when it would take effect. 

Cuccinelli said that the new rule seeks to guarantee that foreigners who seek to enter and stay in the U.S., either temporarily or permanently, “are self-sufficient and rely on their own capabilities and the resources of family members, sponsors, and private organizations rather than on public resources.”

Democratic state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, however, tweeted that the policy was “infuriating and wrong,” and Rep. Dina Titus described it as “cruel” and “disgraceful.” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted that he is prepared to take legal action against the policy, and Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford responded in a tweet that “Nevada is ready to join you.”

Under the new rule, foreigners who seek a visa extension or change of status would have to demonstrate that they have not sought or received public assistance since they obtained the immigration status that they want to extend or change.

The change, officials said, doesn’t affect those who are already naturalized citizens, permanent residents, refugees, recipients of the U Visa for victims of certain types of violent crimes and domestic violence, or the T Visa for victims of human trafficking, among others. 

While existing law says applicants should demonstrate that they are not likely to become a public charge, the new rule, which is set to take effect Oct. 15, specifically includes benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps as ones that could disqualify a person. It also gives more specific guidance on how USCIS officers should weigh certain factors — such as academic attainment level, household income, and health condition — when considering the “totality” of an immigrant’s circumstances and whether they are likely to become a public charge.

A 2018 report from the Migration Policy Institute indicated that almost half of the non-citizen population in the U.S. is at risk of being deemed a public charge under the new rule, compared with 3 percent considered such now. That’s because the new definition of public charge would be an expansion of existing interpretations that a public charge is someone primarily dependent on cash benefits or in government-funded, long-term institutional care.

Although the statistics are not broken out by immigration status, state data shows use of public benefits is widespread in Nevada. More than 658,000 Nevada residents are covered by Medicaid, and more than 429,000 Nevadans receive SNAP benefits.

On Twitter, the White House referred to the change as a move to enforce a Clinton-era law “to ensure that non-citizens do not abuse our public benefit programs and jeopardize the safety net needed by vulnerable Americans.”

“President Trump has delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce long-standing immigration law by defining the public charge inadmissibility ground that has been on the books for years,” Cuccinelli said in a statement. “Throughout our history, self-sufficiency has been a core tenet of the American dream. Self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance laid the foundation of our nation and have defined generations of hardworking immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States.”

But critics of the system say the government is using its power to cause division and attack immigrants who contribute to the progress of the U.S. and follow its rules.

“This action could force immigrant families to choose between putting food on the table and getting the health care they need; it could even force them to leave the country they call home,” Tom Perez, head of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement.

Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford said in a statement that some doctors and WIC (Women Infants and Children) clinics have reported families refusing services as a result. He called the policy racist and linked it to recent traumatic events targeting Latinos.

“This is just the latest attack from the Trump administration on immigrant communities – taking health care and food away from children and families,” Horsfod said. “This comes only a week after Latinos were targeted and murdered in El  Paso; only a week after Trump’s raids in Mississippi left children terrified and crying, not knowing when they would see their parents again. We all must fight back against this racist, abusive policy.”

Michelle Rindels contributed to this report. This story was updated at 8:20 a.m. to add comment from Rep. Dina Titus.

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