At a campaign-style rally on Wednesday evening in Iowa, President Trump called on Congress to pass a law preventing immigrants from accessing welfare benefits for at least five years. However, Trump's proposal to deny new immigrants welfare — which he claimed would be implemented "very shortly" — is not a new one. In fact, a similar law has been in place for more than 20 years.
“I believe the time has come for new immigration rules which say that those seeking admission into our country must be able to support themselves financially and should not use welfare for a period of at least five years,” Trump told the crowd in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Wednesday.
But Trump either did not know about or chose not to mention the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). According to The Hill, PRWORA is a piece of legislation passed during former President Bill Clinton's administration. PRWORA's “Restricting Welfare and Public Benefits For Aliens" section states that immigrants — with exceptions made for refugees and other asylees — cannot quality for any "federal means-tested public benefit” during their first five years in the United States.
Indeed, as ABC News reported following Wednesday's rally, those who enter the country on immigrant visas cannot benefit from Social Security and food stamps for the first five years of their stay. Consequently, Trump's proposal would probably not change anything because it is already the law. Local assistance programs, meanwhile, fall under states' jurisdiction, and it is unclear how those would be impacted under Trump's proposal.
There are certain types of assistance, however, that do not qualify as federal means-tested public benefits. "In-kind emergency disaster relief" is one such example; some vaccinations are another. But the proposal Trump made at his Wednesday rally was not specific, and it is not clear whether he means to strip all possible means of support — even emergency measures — from new immigrants.
Trump's immigration proposals in Iowa came on the heels of a Homeland Security memo stating that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would remain in effect for the time being. Immigration hardliners who were once among Trump's biggest supporters are now criticizing the president for his reluctance to eliminate DACA, which he promised to do on the campaign trail.
Trump's welfare announcement on Wednesday night could be seen as an attempt to reconcile with these supporters, to prove that he is moving forward on his hardline immigration stance. But the fact that PRWORA already exists may hinder his efforts.