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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Set Strict Test For New Immigrants

LOS ANGELES -- Moving to ensure that new legal immigrants do not end up on welfare, U.S. authorities have unveiled stringent and unprecedented new guidelines that will make it much more difficult for low-income people to bring in relatives from abroad.

The revisions announced Monday mark a landmark shift in U.S. immigration policy, experts say, chipping away at the current doctrine of family unification.

The changes, mandated by Congress' sweeping 1996 overhaul of the nation's welfare and immigration laws, impose the first-ever financial screening requirement on U.S. residents who petition to bring in spouses, children, and other relatives.

Most sponsors will now have to show household income at least 25 percent above the poverty level; under that calculation, the minimum income for sponsorship would be $20,062 for a family of four.

In addition, the new Immigration and Naturalization Service regulations for the first time make immigrants' sponsors, usually close relatives, legally liable for supporting those who come here -- an obligation that could last a lifetime. So-called "deadbeat sponsors" may henceforth face lawsuits from government and private aid agencies -- or even from the relatives they brought to the United States -- if they fail to provide basic levels of support.

Behind the crackdown is the widespread but sometimes disputed perception that disproportionate numbers of immigrants are ending up on welfare.

"There's a basic problem with having a generous welfare state at the same time you have an unscreened immigrant flow," said George Borjas, a public policy professor at Harvard who has argued that impoverished new arrivals are an ever-increasing drain on taxpayer resources. "The new regulations have an implicit contract: If you gain that much by bringing in your relative, you should remain responsible for the cost of the immigrant. I see nothing wrong with it. It's like a user fee."

He and other supporters hailed the revisions as a long overdue antidote to an irresponsible system that abetted the entry of welfare cases, draining government treasuries, especially in California.

"We are heartened that there is now the ability to really enforce the commitment that sponsors make when they bring people to this country," said Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for California Governor Pete Wilson.

But critics call the new rules an unseemly "affluence test" that will keep poor and working-class families divided. "Congress has used a back-door means to restrict legal immigration and weed out low-income people," said Charles Wheeler, an attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in San Francisco.

Previous law imposed no requirement for a financial sponsor, only an obligation that the immigrants themselves demonstrate that they would not become "public charges," dependent on public relief.

Prospective immigrants must still convince U.S. authorities of their ability to make a living, showing proof of savings, skills, job guarantees or other means of support. But most legal immigrants will now also be required to find sponsors willing to sign "affidavits of support," legally binding commitments to provide for them.

Authorities anticipate that at least 565,000 U.S. residents will take on the broad new financial obligations next year in seeking to reunite with relatives. If the new immigrants are caught living on public aid, they could face deportation, INS officials said.

The new requirements are expected to have the greatest impact among Mexican and Central American immigrants.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, more than 40 percent of all immigrant-headed U.S. families -- and well over half of all families headed by settlers from Mexico and Central Americans -- would no longer qualify to bring in loved ones.

The guidelines released Monday officially go into effect Dec. 19.

Under the new law, sponsors will not be free of financial responsibility until the sponsored immigrants become U.S. citizens, a process that takes at least five years, or until the settlers have worked and paid taxes for 10 years. Otherwise, the support obligation remains in place until the sponsored immigrants die or depart permanently from the United States. Even divorce does not nullify petitioners' legal responsibility to support sponsored spouses.