Trump's Vow to Cut Red Tape Doesn't Extend to Legal Immigrants

(Bloomberg) -- A Trump administration proposal to make it harder for legal immigrants to remain in the U.S. could cause thousands of them to forgo $2.3 billion worth of food stamps and other government assistance each year.

But even with that apparent taxpayer savings, it still could be the costliest regulation the administration has proposed. That’s because of the paperwork burden it would impose on immigrants and the way the government measures the costs and benefits of regulations.

Trump's Vow to Cut Red Tape Doesn't Extend to Legal Immigrants

The Department of Homeland Security measure would make it more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards authorizing them to permanently remain in the U.S. if they use public aid programs.

The proposal, expected to affect some 383,000 people annually, would boost the odds that U.S. citizenship officers would deem any legal immigrant a “public charge” -- someone dependent on the government for assistance -- making that person ineligible for legal resident status as a result.

The plan aligns with President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration -- both legal and illegal -- and is in keeping with the wishes of some hard-line advocates worried about a wave of low-skilled immigrants taking advantage of the U.S.

It also dovetails with conservative pushes to rein in federal assistance, because many immigrants would be so worried about risking their shot at green cards that they would forgo federal aid. The Homeland Security Department acknowledges there is a potential “chilling effect” that would discourage immigrants from using public benefits programs.

“Those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said. The proposal aims to “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

Some 2.5 percent of affected immigrants would opt out of the government programs as a result, according to the administration’s estimates, potentially preventing the payout of some $19.3 billion in aid over the next decade, estimated at a 3 percent discount rate.

Even so, the administration’s analysts say the rule would cost society more than it saves.

Although federal and state governments would dole out less aid, the unspent money would be a loss for the immigrants, making the change a wash for the government analysts calculating the cost and benefits of federal rules across society. Under their accounting practices, the analysts haven’t treated those foregone transfer payments as a benefit since they “do not directly affect total resources available to society.”

Instead, the government’s analysis says the rule would actually impose big costs on society -- largely by forcing immigrants to spend hours upon hours completing detailed paperwork instead of working and other activities. For instance, the government anticipates each immigrant subject to the proposed rule would spend, on average, four and a half hours just filling out a single new form tracking their assets and financial status, with the opportunity cost of that time calculated at $47.97 per applicant.

The total possible price tag: $1.1 billion over a decade. The Trump administration’s own analysis estimates that all of that lost time filling out paperwork, the cost of getting credit reports and other effects mean the rule would have a direct net cost of $318 million to $1.1 billion over 10 years, when discounted to reflect 2018 dollars.

Visa Crackdown Boosts Jobs for Immigration Lawyers: Bloomberg Law

If finalized, the rule would become one of the most expensive Trump administration regulations yet, based on a survey of proposed and final rules.

Immigration is one area “where Trump wants to regulate and doesn’t mind imposing costs,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert at the watchdog Public Citizen.

The Homeland Security Department will receive feedback on the quality of its analysis, including how potential costs and benefits are characterized, as part of a public comment period.

“As noted in the analysis, the estimated savings through transfers is roughly double the cost,” Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Katie Waldman said by email. “The main direct costs of the rule would be associated with paperwork burden imposed on alien applicants for adjustment of status, who have the burden to show that they are not likely to become a public charge.”

Representatives of the White House Office of Management and Budget, which analyzes proposed regulations and their cost, did not respond to requests for comment.

Under federal law, U.S. immigration and citizenship officers vetting green card applicants already weigh factors such as the immigrants’ health, education, skill levels and whether they have taken direct cash benefits from the government. Substantial reliance on cash aid is a strike against them.

But under the new proposal, use of an array of non-cash government benefits -- even acquiring prescription drugs through Medicare Part D -- would become part of the calculus in determining the immigrants’ admissibility.

Legal immigrants generally can get some public benefits after they have been in the U.S. for five years. By contrast, illegal immigrants who are not authorized to be in the U.S. can’t get them at all.

Ricky Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University, said that the administration’s financial analysis of the proposal overlooks plenty of potential costs. For instance, it doesn’t account for the potential that illnesses and health expenses might climb as a result of immigrants rejecting food stamps that help them buy nutritional fare.

There was extensive analysis of the proposal’s paperwork burden, Revesz said during an event Monday at George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center. But “there’s virtually no discussion of the negative health consequences and other consequences to people who qualify for these benefits who might decide to forgo them in order to protect their immigration status.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.