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U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conduct a pre-dawn apprehension in Bell Gardens, Calif., on March 16, 2020.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents conduct a pre-dawn apprehension in Bell Gardens, Calif., on March 16, 2020. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The Biden administration released its finalized immigration policy Thursday on the so-called "public charge" criteria for green card applicants, part of a yearslong legal battle to undo efforts in the prior administration to limit eligibility for permanent residency.

Under the new 455-page rule, set to take effect Dec. 23, green card applicants will not be penalized for their usage of non-cash public assistance programs, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or housing benefits.

Instead, immigration officers will look at "the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or long-term institutionalization at government expense" to evaluate if any individual is likely to become a "public charge" who is ineligible to become a permanent resident, according to the rule.

"Consistent with America's bedrock values, we will not penalize individuals for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a news release.

The policy marks the latest effort by the Biden administration to undo the Trump administration's immigration agenda. The Biden administration has also sought to unwind various Trump-era asylum restrictions and to streamline visa processing.

The policy formally codifies longstanding guidance used by immigration officials to determine if a visa seeker is, as phrased in the federal immigration statute, "likely at any time to become a public charge."

Since 1999, immigration officers had interpreted this phrase as referencing applicants who are likely to be primarily dependent on the federal government. But the Trump administration issued a new policy revising and widening that interpretation to include immigrants who have used various other government assistance programs, including housing and health care subsidies.

Critics argued the Trump administration's interpretation of the immigration rule would discourage people from taking advantage of needed benefits for which they qualify out of fear of immigration consequences. It was met with fast litigation from immigrant advocates and local governments, and the case ultimately went up the Supreme Court.

But after President Joe Biden took office, and before the justices handed down a ruling, the Biden administration opted to settle those disputes, withdrawing the Trump-era rule in the process.

The Biden administration then reverted to the 1999 field guidance on how the "public charge" criteria should be implemented while beginning the rulemaking process to formalize it.

Immigrant advocates and policy analysts praised the administration's decision to finalize the narrower interpretation of the eligibility criteria on Thursday.

Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said in a news release that the Biden administration's public charge rule "aligns with longstanding principles in immigration law and provides helpful clarifications to pre-existing guidance."

"This policy is an important step in advancing the Biden administration's priority of addressing socioeconomic and racial inequities that have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic," she said.

Jeremy McKinney, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, added in a news release that the Trump policy caused "confusion and fear" in immigrant communities, and this new version "to simplify and de-mystify the rule will truly change lives across our nation."

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