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Press Briefing by USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli

August 12, 2019

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

10:02 A.M. EDT

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here with you today. I'm Ken Cuccinelli. I'm head of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. And President Trump has once again delivered on his promise to the American people to enforce longstanding immigration law.

Today, USCIS, the agency I head as part of the Department of Homeland Security, has issued a rule that encourages and ensures self-reliance and self-sufficiency for those seeking to come to, or to stay in, the United States. It will also help promote immigrant success in the United States as they seek opportunity here.

Throughout our history, self-reliance has been a core principle in America. The virtues of perseverance, hard work, and self-sufficiency laid the foundation of our nation and have defined generations of immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States.

Our current law, which is generations old, recognizes that some new arrivals to our country need the help of their family and community. It requires come of those, who seek to live and remain in the United States, to have a sponsor who will be financially responsible for them.

In the case of my own family, my Italian grandfather played this role, sponsoring two of his cousins, Mario and Silvio, to come to America. Once they arrived, my grandfather wanted to make sure his cousins spoke English — certainly well enough to work — and listed my father in that effort, as well, to make sure they could speak English well enough to work. And they did.

My family worked together to ensure that they could provide for their own needs, and they never expected the government to do it for them. And the same hardworking spirit shared by countless immigrants who've made the U.S. their home is central to our American identity.

This spirit has also been rooted for over a century — well over a century — in our immigration laws, going back to the 1800s.

Since 1996, the law has required foreign nationals to rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their families, sponsors, and private organizations in their communities to succeed. However, Congress has never defined the term "public charge" in the law, and that term hadn't been clearly defined by regulation. Well, that is what changes today with this rule.

Through the public charge rule, President Trump's administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America.

Our rule generally prevents aliens, who are likely to become a public charge, from coming to the United States or remaining here and getting a green card. Public charge is now defined in a way that ensures the law is meaningfully enforced and that those who are subject to it are self-sufficient.

Under the rule, a public charge in now defined as an individual who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period. For instance, receipt of two different benefits in one month counts as two months.

A public charge in an admissibility determination is prospective and looks at whether an individual is likely, at any point in the future, to become a public charge as we define it in the regulation.

Public benefits are defined as federal, state and local, as well as tribal, cash assistance for income maintenance and small list of non-cash benefits.

Some examples of the public benefits that are part of the rule are general assistance, SSI, SNAP, most forms of Medicaid, and certain subsidized housing programs. Significantly, the rule does not consider many forms of government assistance that protect children and pregnant women's health as public benefits.

Generally, this includes emergency medical assistance, disaster relief, national school lunch programs, WIC, CHIP, Medicaid received by people under the age of 21 or pregnant women, as well as foster care and adoption subsidies, student and mortgage loans, energy assistance, food pantries, homeless shelters, and Head Start.

It's important to note this rule will apply prospectively only to applications and petitions received starting on October 15th of this year. Once this rule is implemented and effective on October 15th, USCIS Career Immigration Services Officers — what we call ISOs — will generally consider an alien's current and past receipt of the designated public benefits while in the United States as a negative factor when examining applications. However, receipt of certain non-cash benefits received before October 15th will not be considered as a negative factor.

The underlying statute passed on a bipartisan basis also requires officers to assess, at a minimum, each applicant's age, health, family status, assets, resources and financial status, and their education and skills, as well as other factors set forth in the rule in the totality of the circumstances. The totality of the circumstances means that officers will assess all of the evidence related to these factors, and no one factor alone will decide an applicant's case.

Most of these factors are the ones Congress mandated us to review when considering immigration benefit applications. Under this final rule, USCIS will be able to objectively determine whether an applicant is likely at any time in the future to receive public benefits above the designated threshold.

Importantly, this final rule has no impact on humanitarian-based immigration programs for refugees and asylees. No impact on refugees or asylees. And it clarifies the exemption for trafficking victims and victims of domestic violence. Congress has long carved out exemptions for these categories. And our regulation adheres strictly to the laws as written.

The final rule also excludes from consideration public benefits received by certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their spouses and children, as well as Medicaid benefits for emergency medical services.

Lastly, under the final rule, USCIS can permit an applicant seeking a green card from inside the United States, who is inadmissible only on the public charge ground, to adjust their status to that of a legal permanent resident if they will post a public charge bond.

So, to conclude, I'd just note again that generations of immigrants have strengthened the foundation of our country and making positive contributions today, and we expect that to continue in the future.

Through faithful execution of our nation's longstanding laws, President Trump's public charge inadmissibility rule better ensures that immigrants are able to successfully support themselves as they seek opportunity here in America. Throughout our history, Americans and legal immigrants have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps to pursue their dreams and the opportunity of this great nation.

As President Trump delivers on his promise to uphold the rule of law, this administration is promoting our shared history and encouraging the core values needed to make the American dream a reality. And with that, I'm happy to take some questions.

Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you, Mr. Cuccinelli. As you know, the primary focus of this President throughout his presidency has been on illegal immigration. The focus of what you just outlined in this proposed rule is on legal immigration.


Q: Why the change in focus?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: This is not a change in focus. This rule goes all the way back to executive orders from early in 2017. It's been a long, arduous effort. If you take a look at the fully printed item, it'll make "War and Peace" seem relatively short. It is very thorough in the first attempt to put into operational effect all of the different factors that Congress itself has said we're supposed to consider when deciding admissibility or inadmissibility.

I would also note, as the head of the agency responsible for naturalizing citizens, the step after legal permanent residency for many people. Last year, we swore in more American citizens than the four years before it. And this year, I expect to see similar numbers again.

So we have not at all laid off of — in the Trump administration — processing properly legal immigration. I think what you've seen and heard is more discussion of illegal immigration, but we've been pressing ahead, and this rule is an example of that.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Is this rule change an admission from the administration that going through some sort of route to reform legal immigration by legislation is moot?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. This is an implementation of a law passed by Congress in 1996 that has not been given meaningful effect. In 1999, some guidance was put in place with a presumption of rule. It followed — the rule never followed. And so today we're issuing a rule, which, as I said, for the first time really puts meaningful meat on the bones of the 1996 law passed on a bipartisan basis.

This does not substitute — does not substitute for congressional action in other areas. For instance, asy- — I mentioned asylees are not covered by this rule. Asylum is a major subject of focus for us in my agency. And with the crisis at the border, we've been all but begging Congress to take action to close loopholes — some of them the same as the Obama administration. That has not happened.

So in this narrow area of our responsibility, we're relying on congressional direction. And we've, as I said, put meat on the bones here, I think, today.

Yes, sir.

Q: Thank you. I have two quick questions. First, I was wondering if you could give us an update on what's happening with work permits for asylum seekers — people whose cases haven't been adjudicated yet.

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: They're being processed in the ordinary course of business. So —

Q: Is regulation coming, though, to address this?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: We're working on other things within the agency right now, but I'm not prepared to speak to where those may end up today. Sorry.

Yes, sir.

Q: And my second question, if I may ask a second question —

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Oh, you did say two. All right.

Q: There were recently workplace immigration raids. And of course, President Trump — his first prison commutation went to a man who was arrested after his business failed when about 400 illegal immigrants were arrested. Did that decision to grant a prison commutation to this man send the wrong message to employers?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: I'm not really prepared to speak to that. I don't think so. The President does those one person at a time. I think what you saw ICE do this week — in enforcing the law meaningfully, with seven operations across the state of Mississippi and, of course, investigations still ongoing — criminal investigations growing out of that — is a growth for ICE from the previous year. Their enforcement efforts are up, and I think you can expect to see more of that as part of the message of this administration: We're going to enforce the law.

Yes, sir.

Q: I also have two questions. The first regards the concern that the public charge rule, as it's going to be enforced, will have a chilling effect on people. For example, if a man has a citizen daughter who might be eligible for either nutritional or housing benefits, he might be afraid to apply for those benefits his daughter is due. How do you respond to that concern?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: That's an excellent question. The receipt by a citizen in the household of public benefits will not affect the consideration for a particular alien, as a general matter. So the citizens in that household — again, in their receipt of public benefits — don't affect consideration of an alien, as a general matter.

Q: So you're not concerned about a chilling effect?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: We — if you look at just the first page of this rule, you'll see we start out by pointing out the things that are not covered. And we will have, on the USCIS website, now and forevermore, a clear listing of the two. So anyone who has any question about whether the receipt of a particular benefit would be considered in a consideration — for instance, if they applied for a green card — will be able to easily find that from our website.

And it is part of the message we're broadcasting. It's why I talk to you and listed so many of the items we don't cover. I hope you all will cover that as well.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: The second question I had regarded this idea — sorry.

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Yeah, all right. So, I'm new to this. This will be it for two questions. Then we're going to go to one. But I said yes to you. Go ahead.

Q: The second question has to do with the fact that, as long as the public charge rule has been in effect since the late 1800s, there have also been, almost as long, the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty that read, "Give us your tired, you poor…"

You're implementing a public charge rule for the first time. Is that sentiment — "Give us your tired, your poor…" — still operative in the United States? Or should those words come down? Should the plaque come down off the Statue of Liberty?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, I'm certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty.

We have a long history of being one of the most welcoming nations in the world on a lot of bases — whether you be an asylee, whether you be coming here to join your family, or immigrating yourself.

This rule will cover, for USCIS, almost 400,000 people a year whose applications to become legal permanent residents will include a meaningful analysis of whether they're likely to become a public charge or not.

I do not think, by any means, we're ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: Could you elaborate a little bit on how big of an issue this is — how much this is costing U.S. taxpayers to have immigrants receiving benefits?

And also, there's millions of Americans who accept public benefits, that have difficulty paying for healthcare on their own, for example. So why is that different for someone who is in this country legally, who is struggling to, you know, have certain needs met here as well?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: So, the benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system — especially in the age of the modern welfare state, which is so expansive and expensive, frankly.

So that is — that self-sufficiency that has been a central part of the American value set for so long is critical for us and for taxpayers going forward. That's part of the motivation for a rule like this. It's part of a benefit that goes all the way back 140 years. This rule, as I said earlier, simply puts meat on the bones of that consideration.

Q: Is there any dollar amount you can give, though, about what does it cost to taxpayers?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: No, because the benefit for taxpayers is forward-looking. The costs we do, that you'll see in this rule, are costs of implementation. They're not the benefits in having more American citizens — 5, 10, 20, 30 years down the road — who are more self-sufficient and less dependent on the welfare state.

Yes, sir.

Q: How much leeway will the case officers have when they're seeing this? So, obviously, you said it'll have a negative score.


Q: It'll have a negative impact on their application. But will the caseworkers still be able to say, you know, "John A., I know you took this benefit, but you will still be eligible for a green card"? Or is pretty much, you know, "Sorry, that's just the rule"?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: No, that's an excellent question. This is a totality of circumstances test. It means that the welfare benefits we've been talking about here are one factor. I listed the others that Congress has itself put in the statute — things like age, health. We basically rely, for health, on the legally required medical exam.

But it is career immigration services officers that are going to be making these decisions, and they're going to have to weigh all these factors together.

The change under this rule is we're finally giving guidance that brings all those factors together that really hasn't been effectively done up until today.

Yes, ma'am.

Q: How many refugees does the administration plan to admit in 2020? And also, are you considering eliminating the refugee program altogether?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: I can't imagine anyone would ever consider eliminating the refugee program altogether, and Congress would have to do that anyway. The number for next year needs to be decided by the end of September by the President, and I don't have any insight into what that number will be at this point in time. Sorry.

Q: Just real quickly: You know, critics are saying this policy is unfairly targeting the lower-income immigrants. How do you respond to that?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, we certainly expect people of any income to be able to stand on their own two feet. And so, if people are not able to be self-sufficient, then this negative factor is going to bear very heavily against them in a decision about whether they'll be able to become a legal permanent resident.

And a poor person can be prepared to be self-sufficient; many have been, through the history of this country. So let's not look at that as the be-all and end-all. It's not the deciding factor, which is why we continue to use the totality of circumstances test.

Yes, sir.

Q: I just want to circle back to this question of a chilling effect. You talked about the question of whether a citizen in a family gets benefits, if that wouldn't be used against somebody.

But take the case that immigration advocates, I think, use a lot, of a family that are in the country legally, they haven't yet gotten their green cards. They are in need of services, whether that be medical services, whether that be housing services to keep them off the streets, so to speak. And they are going to now be fearful of using the services to which they are legally entitled, under the law, because there's no way to determine — one, two, three years out from when they might apply for their green card — whether — how much they're likelier not to get a green card if they use the services.

So the fear is that there will be a wave of people across the country who will decide not to get — not to use the services, sort of, affirmatively that they're entitled to, out of fear that it'll ultimately come to bite them.

And how do you counter that, if, in fact, you want them to use the services to which they're entitled? Or is it — or is this really a sort of effort to say, "This is a whole class of people that shouldn't be using any services at all"?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, in your description, you described a situation where government benefits were basically making — allowing this family to hang on; that they're not self-sufficient.

And while this — if we go forward a few years and look back at that situation — because, remember, we essentially start counting October 15th, with the exception of things that would have qualified under the 1999 guidance, which was fairly narrow. Then that's what we're trying to avoid in the future.

Now, even under the circumstances you describe, if you're talking about an applicant who has the skills necessary to, you know, to make their own way and to work their way of that situation, that's a case they make to the career caseworker — well, immigration services officer.

But we do want to avoid, looking to the future, a situation where people who are adjusting status do, in the future, become dependent on those public benefits. We're trying to avoid that situation going forward.

Q: But, as I understand it, the public benefits are there as a bridge, right? Like you — the public benefits aren't designed for people to be on them forever. They're designed to be on them to help — whether you're an immigrant or not an immigrant, they're there to help folks for a time.

So are you saying that, if you're an immigrant, your advice to them is, "Don't take benefits because this is going to count against you"?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: No, I was using your example of where they need them and there's — you know, it's their foundation, financially, as I took your description.

And I would say that the entire legal immigration system is designed, by Congress, for the benefit of America. And what we're looking for here are people who are going to live with us either their whole lives, or ultimately become citizens, who can stand on their own two feet, with the same sort of requirements that we've had in the past for well over a century.

Yes, sir. In the middle.

Q: Will the different benefits be weighted differently or treated differently? Say, if someone uses Medicaid, will that be held against them more than, say, if they use food stamps?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: So — not the benefits, no. But the use of benefits over the 12-month period in 36 months would be a heavily negative factor. There are negative factors, heavily weighted negative factors. There are positive factors, heavily weighted positive factors.

I'll give you an example of the other side. If you have private health insurance, that is a heavily weighted positive factor.

So those are — those do all weigh in, again, in the totality of circumstances. And obviously, we call the more heavily weighted factors "heavily" because they matter more than the others. But they go in both directions.

Q: We've heard outspoken critics of the administration's immigration policies before, but it seems increasingly we're hearing from U.S. Catholic bishops who are showing their concern. Now, you're Catholic. When you hear the bishops' concern, does it give you any pause when you consider carrying out some of these policies?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: It doesn't give me pause about implementing the laws that's already been put in place, and particularly given the long history. I used an Italian example from my background; the other half is Irish. So, you know, I'm very familiar with what the Catholic bishops have to say on this subject, and they certainly are vociferous.

And I would say, as a Catholic, one of the things I'm proud of is that my church has been one of the best supporters of people in this country before we had a welfare state.

So, I don't see that changing, and I don't see any conflict with enforcing the law as it's written.

Yes, sir.

Q: Can you address the Latino community? Some in the Latino community already feel they have been targeted. You have the El Paso shooting. You have the raids in Mississippi. But as Jon noted before, the issues before were if you were here illegally, and now this obviously extends to legal immigration. Why shouldn't the Latino community feel targeted by this?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, first of all, this is a 140-year-old legal structure. We're dealing with the most recent iteration of it. But this is not new. This was — the same question might have been asked when my Italian immigrants were coming — immigrant ancestors were coming in — and all through that 140 years. So, we're not doing anything new here; we're simply making effective what Congress had already put on the books. So there's no reason for any particular group to feel like this is targeting them. This will apply across the world.

Q: (Inaudible) that this will apply to more Latinos than any other — likely more Latinos?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, if we had been having this conversation 100 years ago, it would've applied to more Italians. It would've — you know, we can go —

Q: But we're having the conversation now in a very divisive time.

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: Well, that's just fine. Well, I think that the divisiveness may be more rhetorical. And I hope that you all, in your role, will help cure that with some of how you report it.

Yes, sir. I'm going to take two more.

Yeah. Right here. Orange tie.

Q: Thanks for coming.


Q: Right here. Thank you.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has said that the United States could easily take another 2 million refugees. He's made these kind of comments on the campaign trail. Does the Trump administration have a threshold that they would like to how many more immigrants and asylum and refugee people that they could take?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: There is no — there's no comprehensive number out there at all. The only things with formal numbers — or the earlier question, say, about the annual refugee number; that happens every year. Of course, we're taking in, I want to say, around a million-plus a year right now. And I can't really speak to Joe Biden's personal opinion. But we don't have some target number that we're working with here, if that's your question.

All right. Last question. Yes, ma'am.

Q: Does this new public charge rule impact future applications? For example, would there be a higher bar for U.S. citizens to prove that they can financially support a family member for a family-based immigrant visa?

ACTING DIRECTOR CUCCINELLI: So what you would normally have in the family circumstance is you'd have an affidavit of support. So they wouldn't necessarily fall into the category of being addressed by the public charge rule, because if they have an affidavit of support which has been scrutinized by a USCIS officer, and it is believed that sponsor can, in fact, support those identified at over 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines — which is the standard — then that would be the end of the discussion as it relates to that sort of application.

It's an excellent question because it addresses a huge piece of legal immigration in this country.

Thank you all very much.


10:29 A.M. EDT

Donald J. Trump, Press Briefing by USCIS Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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