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White House eyes new limits on citizenship for legal immigrants

The Trump White House doesn't just want to cut legal immigration; it also wants to make it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens.
Image: Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington
Senior White House Advisor Stephen Miller waits to go on the air in the White House Briefing Room in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua...

The recent fights over immigration legislation have hinged on an unexpected point: legal immigration. It's easy to forget, but it wasn't long ago that Democratic leaders were willing to give the White House the deal Donald Trump said he wanted: funds for a border wall in exchange for DACA protections for Dreamers.

But the president balked. If the deal didn't include significant cuts to legal immigration -- a position that used to be limited to the fringes of Republican politics -- Trump simply wasn't interested.

It's since become obvious that the legislative prospects for an immigration compromise are basically non-existent, and the president himself has advised GOP lawmakers to give up on the issue until 2019 at the earliest. But inside the White House, it's a different story. NBC News reported this morning that the administration is now expected to issue a proposal "that would make it harder for legal immigrants to become citizens or get green cards" if they have ever used a range of popular social-insurance programs, including the Affordable Care Act.

The move ... is part of White House senior adviser Stephen Miller's plan to limit the number of migrants who obtain legal status in the U.S. each year.Details of the rulemaking proposal are still being finalized, but based on a recent draft seen last week and described to NBC News, immigrants living legally in the U.S. who have ever used or whose household members have ever used Obamacare, children's health insurance, food stamps and other benefits could be hindered from obtaining legal status in the U.S.Immigration lawyers and advocates and public health researchers say it would be the biggest change to the legal immigration system in decades and estimate that more than 20 million immigrants could be affected. They say it would fall particularly hard on immigrants working jobs that don't pay enough to support their families.

As the NBC News report makes clear, such a move would not need approval from Congress. Trump and his team could act unilaterally and impose these changes.

We can dig into this in more detail once the policymaking process moves forward, but in the interim, I think Jon Chait's correct about the implications of the reported proposal.

Donald Trump's defenders have insisted all along that when evaluating his immigration policy, we should ignore his veiled and even textbook racist appeals, and instead view it as a straightforward application of law enforcement. "Would-be lawbreakers know that we are restoring the rule of law and enforcing our immigration laws again," boasted Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "At stake in this debate is not how to enforce immigration laws but whether we should do so at all," argued conservative columnist Jonathan Tobin. It's not about keeping America white, they say, it's about following the rules and making people get in line.That defense was strained to the breaking point by Trump's child-separation policy, which frequently targeted families attempting to seek asylum through legal channels. And now the bare pretense is about to be snapped altogether.

Looking ahead, NBC News also reported that a version of the plan "has been sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the sources said, the final step before publishing a rule in the federal register."

Watch this space.