The Trump administration is preparing to further expand rules that would disqualify more visa applicants living abroad and in the U.S. believed by the administration to be using too many public services. The move comes as data appear to show more people are getting their visas denied.
According to an analysis of State Department data by the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that focuses on immigration and other matters, visa denials have shot up 40 percent over the past two fiscal years.
In fiscal year 2018, for example, 13,450 visa applicants were denied because the government determined they might pose too much of a strain on public resources. In the previous year, there were 3,237 such denials. Those figures could include people whose applications spanned multiple years.
Satisfying income requirements and having a sponsor already in the U.S. made it more likely a visa application would get approved under past administrations. But the new policy requires all applicants to clear other hurdles, with department staff evaluating factors including health, age and education.
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"It's what we've been calling the invisible wall," said Jeffrey Gorsky, a senior immigration attorney at Berry Appleman & Leiden and former chief legal adviser for visas at the U.S. State Department, adding, "One way to slow immigration is to just clog up the system."
The use of, or the likelihood an applicant might use, assistance programs in the future, is just one factor in an application. However, the National Foundation for American Policy and other immigration experts said that the president's 2017 executive order on "extreme vetting" -- aimed at changing how immigrants and visitors to the U.S. are processed -- was also directly responsible for increased visa denials.
John Moore/Getty Images, FILEImmigrants prepare to become American citizens at a naturalization service on Jan. 22, 2018 in Newark, N.J.
Responding to questions from ABC News about what prompted the policy change, the State Department cited that 2017 executive order.
Democracy Forward, a nonprofit, anti-corruption group, sued the Trump administration for modifying the visa denial policy last year. The group also criticized Trump's comments to a conservative news outlet this week in which he said that he doesn't "want to have anyone coming in that's on welfare."
Many public assistance programs in the U.S. are already off-limits to new immigrants, but there are some exceptions for women and children and certain states provide more assistance. The vast majority of non-citizens don't have access to healthcare or many other services, according to the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute.
Although immigrants with no legal status can enroll in public schools, they're generally ineligible for federally funded nutrition assistance programs.
"The president's recent comments underscore the discrimination behind this change," said Karianne Jones, a Democracy Forward lawyer. "This is another example of the Trump Administration using fear tactics to try to deter immigrants and their families from accessing public services critical to their health and well-being."
John Moore/Getty Images, FILESignage beacons immigrants and their families to a naturalization ceremony on Feb. 2, 2018 in New York.
In court documents responding to the Democracy Forward lawsuit, the government acknowledged the new State Department policy would result in more people getting their visas rejected.
"It is true that application of the new guidance, compared to the earlier guidance, could potentially lead to individuals being denied visas on 'public charge' grounds more frequently," federal lawyers for the administration said in a court statement.