MIAMI – When Hurricane Michael tore through north Florida in October, it completely destroyed a car wash business owned by a Palestinian immigrant. The Category 4 storm also caused significant damage to his house and an office building that he owns in Panama City.
The man, a legal U.S. resident who first entered the U.S. in 1997 on a Fulbright Scholarship, did not request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as so many of his neighbors did. He also thinks he’s going to decline a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration to rebuild his car wash, a standard process for victims of natural disasters.
The reason: He is trying to finalize his asylum application and become a legal permanent resident, and he’s worried that accepting any kind of government assistance will jeopardize his petitions in light of new rules being proposed by the Trump administration.
The new “public charge” rules would limit the amount of federal assistance immigrants can receive if they want to permanently settle in the U.S., but the complicated rules have caused widespread confusion about what kind of benefits, if any, immigrants can accept.
That has left the Palestinian immigrant and his family – his wife, and their two U.S.-born children – in a legal limbo that millions of immigrants around the country are trying to sort out.
“I feel that I’ve served this country. I’m investing in my country. I’ve called it my country since the day I arrived here,” said the man, whose name is being withheld because he fears for the safety of his relatives in Palestine. “But I’m afraid to accept anything. The only assistance I ever received was the (Fulbright Scholarship). If I applied to FEMA for help, would that be considered government assistance? That’ why I’m hesitant, I’m scared to even explore that.”
The roughly 6,000 members of the migrant caravan camped out in Tijuana have been frequent targets of late for President Donald Trump, but the upcoming changes to the public charge rule will have far broader implications, affecting at least 380,000 legal immigrants a year. That represents at least 40 percent of the legal immigrants who have gone through the background checks and all the paperwork necessary each year to qualify for permanent legal residence.
Monday marks the final day that the public can comment on the proposed rule change, which had drawn more than 139,000 comments as of Thursday, a number that immigration experts say is a record high for the Department of Homeland Security. After that deadline passes, the administration may implement the final rule at any time.
‘Public charge’ rules
The idea of requiring immigrants to be self-sufficient is not a new one, as “public charge” rules go back to the colonial years of the United States. But the Trump administration is trying to redefine the way immigrants are screened in a way that’s never been used before.
The current definition, which was signed into law in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton, defines a public charge as someone who is “primarily dependent” on government assistance. That means receiving cash assistance that makes up more than half of their income, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), state and local cash assistance, and long-term medical care at government expense.
The new regulations would also consider “non-cash” benefits, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (known as food stamps), Section 8 housing and rental assistance, Medicare Part D prescription drug benefits, and Medicaid in non-emergency situations.
The new rules also grant broad discretion to immigration officials to determine whether someone may become a public charge in the future. Those officials could weigh a wide variety of “negative factors” including the applicants’ age (specifically if an applicant is under 18 or over 61), health, education, work skills, income, and family status.
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen says the changes are necessary to ensure that immigrants do not take advantage of a generous U.S. system. The administration estimates the change will affect about 380,000 applications annually, saving U.S. taxpayers $2.3 billion a year by denying immigrants who the government believes may one day need public benefits.
But immigrant advocates say those figures vastly underestimate how many applications for legal permanent residency can be affected, and the harmful impacts the new rules will have on recent immigrants, who are already vulnerable and sometimes need help to get started in the U.S.
The non-partisan Migration Policy Institute completed an analysis in November that looked at the 940,000 people who received green cards in 2017 and how they would have fared under the Trump administration’s new rules. The report found that 650,000 would have been at risk of denial for having one negative factor, and 400,000 had at least two negative factors. Only 39 percent of green card recipients in 2017 would have passed the most important “positive factor” in the new rules — having an income higher than 250 percent of the poverty line.
“This proposed rule may, in the long run, impose the kind of steep cuts to family admissions that the Trump administration has consistently championed but could not accomplish via legislation,” the authors concluded in the report.
Over a third of the migrants who came with the caravan to the U.S.-Mexico border are apparently suffering from a slew of health issues.
Adding to those concerns are fears that immigrants will be too scared to accept government benefits, even if they’re legally entitled to them. That’s why it’s not just immigration advocates that oppose the new rules. The rule has been opposed by hundreds of organizations that focus on affordable housing, health care, education, disabilities, the elderly, and LGBTQ rights.
Sonya Schwartz, senior health policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, said that widespread opposition to the proposed rules explains why so many people have signed on to a government website to comment on them.
“It’s because people get what the administration is trying to do here,” she said. “People are mad. They’re remembering how their families started here, or their friends’ families started here, and they want to let it be known that they don’t agree.”
In support of rule changes
The proposal has drawn praise from supporters of the president and groups that want to restrict legal immigration.
Steven Camarota, the director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, did his own analysis of the green card population and found that 63 percent of households headed by a non-citizen used at least one welfare program, compared to 35 percent of households headed by a native-born citizen. That’s why the center supports the new public charge rule, and other measures to shift the U.S. from a primarily family-based immigration system to a merit-based one.
“Either we select future immigrants unlikely to need welfare by emphasizing skills and education, or we accept the welfare burden that comes from our current immigration system,” Camarota said.
It remains unclear exactly when the new rules would go into effect. The Department of Homeland Security must read all the comments, respond to some and make any required changes.
Ronald Levin, a law professor who studies administrative law at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, said that process usually takes weeks or months. But since the Trump administration has “developed a reputation for cutting corners on administrative law requirements,” Levin said there’s no telling when the rules will become official.
“The professional staffs do understand the legal requirements, but they are sometimes overruled at the political level,” he said. “If cool heads prevail, the public charge rule will not go into effect right after the comment period ends.”
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