DHS memo reveals limited public charge exclusions, tracking

Caroline May | Reporter

After more than six months and three oversight requests, the Department of Homeland Security has finally responded to four Republican senators’ inquiry into why the government seems so willing to allow entry to immigrants likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, or “public charges.”

In the DHS response to Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch and Pat Roberts — penned by Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Nelson Peacock and exclusively obtained by The Daily Caller — the department explains that from 2005 through Aug. 9, 2012, a total of 9,796 applicants under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) were denied admission because they were deemed likely to become a public charge.

According to a calculation from Sessions’ office, based on data from DHS’ Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, the total number of people denied admission constitutes only .0084 percent of approved VWP applicants in that seven-year period.

The VWP allows eligible citizens from 37 participating countries to enter the United States without first obtaining a visa for stays of 90 days or less. The applicants who were turned away were denied entry, not a visa — but either way, very few have been denied entry on public charge grounds in recent years.

The concern with these VWP participants is that they might overstay their 90-day limit through the program, which is easier to navigate than the process for obtaining a normal visa. An estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants have overstayed their visas.

“Admitting VWP participants likely to become a public charge, without even ensuring their exit, may be costing taxpayers billions right now,” a Senate Budget Committee aide told TheDC.

Last October, TheDC reported that in FY 2011, just .068 percent of 10.37 million immigration applicants processed by the State Department were found to be ineligible on the basis of becoming a public charge. (RELATED: Dependency risk not a significant barrier to entry for new immigrants)

DHS did not provide data for the senators’ inquiries into how many total visa applicants were denied due to their public charge risk from 2001 to 2011. The department also did not provide data on how many became public charges after receiving access from 2001 to 2011, explaining that “data entry quality and system changes … did not account for statistical tracking at this level.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is “currently addressing these data tracking issues and intends to capture such data in a reliable manner,” DHS assured the senators.

According to the Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), individuals looking to gain admission to the United States or an immigration status adjustment are barred from entry if they are “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status … likely at any time to become a public charge.”

DHS excludes the vast majority of the more than 80 federal means-tested welfare programs from consideration when determining an applicant’s public charge risk. Just two federal programs are applicable: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

A recent analysis of Census Bureau data by the Center for Immigration Studies revealed that in 2010, 36 percent of immigrant-headed households were on at least one major welfare program — largely nutrition assistance and Medicaid (both of which are considered inadmissible in determining one’s dependency risk based on current public charge policies) — compared to 23 percent of native headed households.

As DHS elaborates in its letter, the restrictions on potential government dependents has been a staple of immigration law for over a century.

“As you may know, public charge has been part of U.S. immigration law for more than 100 years as a ground of inadmissibility and deportation,” Peacock, the DHS legislative affairs director, wrote to the senators.

But some conservatives and small-government activists are concerned that, when it comes to immigration, hasty reform efforts by both parties are trumping sound judgment. Each Republican response to the State of the Union address — the official one, from Florida Republican Marco Rubio, and tea party response from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — will be from legislators who, like the president, support some pathway to citizenship.

“For small government conservatives and libertarians like Rand Paul, it is essential to realize that until these problems are solved, any mass legalization will represent the biggest expansion of the welfare state that we’ve ever seen,” a GOP aide told TheDC.

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