News & Politics

Trump's DHS wants to use credit scores to predict if immigrants will go on welfare

There are multiple reasons this is a bad idea.

credit U.S. Customs and Border Protection

On Friday, Slate reported that the Trump administration is considering a new policy where immigrants will have to provide their credit scores to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), so that officials can factor their likelihood of using welfare programs into the decision to give them green cards:

The agency charged with safeguarding the nation would like to make immigrants submit their credit scores when applying for legal resident status.

The new rule, contained in a proposal signed by DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, is designed to help immigration officers identify applicants likely to become a "public charge" — that is, a person primarily dependent on government assistance for food, housing, or medical care. According to the proposal, credit scores and other financial records (including credit reports, the comprehensive individual files from which credit scores are generated) would be reviewed to predict an applicant's chances of "self-sufficiency." The proposal is open for public comment until Dec. 10.

The specter of immigrants draining the welfare system is a longtime fear of Republicans, although it is not borne out by data.

A 2010 report by The American Immigration Council found that "in one estimate, immigrants earn about $240 billion a year, pay about $90 billion a year in taxes, and use about $5 billion in public benefits." The Center for Immigration studies, a right-wing anti-immigrant hate group with ties to white nationalists, published a counter study in 2015 arguing that 51 percent of households headed by immigrants receive some sort of public money, but that study artificially inflated the figure by including households where the person or people receiving the money are citizens. Indeed, a key reason immigrants do not significantly cost the American welfare state is that our current welfare laws are carefully written to make it hard for immigrants to qualify.

But even if high immigration stressing the welfare system was a valid concern, credit scores are not a reliable way of assessing someone's personal responsibility.

For one thing, 40 percent of adults under age 65 report their credit scores were lowered by medical debt. For another, at least one in five consumers have "potentially material errors" in their credit rating from at least one of the "big three" credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. These errors are bad enough when they unfairly prevent someone from taking out a car loan, qualifying for an apartment, or even getting a job. If these errors could also prevent someone from staying in the country, it would be downright horrifying.

If Nielsen and the officials at DHS get their way, life is about to get even harder for those applying for residency — using data that was never designed to inform the immigration system, and degrading myths about the social safety net.

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Matthew Chapman is a video game designer, science fiction author, and political reporter from Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter @fawfulfan.