Many immigrants could soon be prevented from getting green cards and visa extensions if they are using, or are likely to use, public benefits in the future. That's if a rule recently proposed by the Trump administration goes into effect as expected early next year.
If it does, experts say the policy could profoundly change the face of legal immigration.
U.S. officials already deny green cards to applicants they deem likely to become a taxpayer burden or a "public charge." But that designation is limited to those who need cash assistance or long-term institutionalization.
Under the proposed rule, the government could also reject applicants who have received food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid and several other benefits.
And even if prospective immigrants have not used these benefits, the government would look at factors such as their health, income and education to determine how likely they are to use them in the future.
"The impacts of this would be felt very unevenly; the people from Central America and Mexico, for example, would be more likely to have negative factors," Greenberg said.
Mark Greenberg is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. His new study calculates how the proposed policy could "disproportionately affect women, children, and the elderly" and "shift immigration flows away from Latin America toward Europe."
"It would give federal officials enormous discretion to deny admission to the country for a very large share of people who now come into the country legally. ... It would really have profound effects on our immigration system," Greenberg said.
The proposed rule wouldn't apply to refugees and asylum-seekers. But Greenberg is concerned by how the Trump administration could use it to make serious changes to immigration policy without getting Congress' approval.
But many conservative commentators say it's the current guideline that's problematic because it's lax and outdated.
In a recent editorial on the issue, National Review argued the existing public charge rule "does a horrible job" because "cash assistance is today but a small part of the welfare state." The conservative outlet also wrote, "There is no reason whatsoever for the U.S. to welcome immigrants who cannot support themselves without taxpayer subsidies."
Much of the controversy stems from the fact that the 1952 "public charge" law is pretty vague. The law requires officials to "at a minimum" consider certain factors such as the health, finances and education of the applicant, but otherwise leaves the details of figuring out who "is likely to become a public charge" up to the executive branch.
This video includes reporting from Newsy affiliate CNN.