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Advocates, officials: New Trump anti-immigration rule is harshest yet

The immigrant community in the Triangle frequently gathers to fight for their rights, and the latest rule from the Trump Administration will likely contribute to more family separations. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Changes to ‘public charge’ rule will favor the wealthy, keep families divided

By implementing a “wealth test” and limiting the type of person eligible to stay in this country, the Trump Administration’s new “public charge” rule [2] will do more to keep families separated than it will to discourage immigrants from using public benefits.

That’s the assessment of a number of experts, officials, advocates and lawyers who have called the rule the boldest anti-immigration move yet by the Trump Administration. Advocacy groups are already promising legal challenges and the city of San Francisco filed a lawsuit today, even though the rule won’t go into effect until Oct. 15.

“Public charge” is a term that refers to immigrants who the government believes will rely on public assistance. The new rule expands the definition of who would be considered a public charge so that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can “ensure applicants [for lawful admission to the country] are self-sufficient,” according to the 837-page document.

It changes “green card” criteria to allow harsh scrutiny of an immigrant’s financial resources when deciding whether to allow them to obtain legal status in the U.S. One of the factors that will be considered (and make it more difficult for legal immigrants to obtain permanent resident status) is whether they use or are likely to use public benefits, like non-emergency Medicaid, SNAP food assistance or Section 8 housing.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, described the new rule to NPR [3] by twisting Emma Lazarus’ famous words on the Statue of Liberty [4].

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he said during an interview with the public news organization.

The mainstream news media has thus far focused heavily on the public benefits aspect of the new rule, and Cuccinelli’s comments have only fueled further confusion about how exactly it will affect legal immigrants using the system.

The public benefits impact, however, is expected to be minimal in North Carolina. Advocates are more worried about the other criteria set forth in the document for individuals seeking green cards.

The new rule make clear that the Trump Administration prefers immigrants between the ages of 18 and 61 and that it doesn’t want young people, old people, disabled people, or people with medical conditions, according to Kate Woomer-Deters, senior attorney for the Immigration and Refugee Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center (the parent organization of NC Policy Watch).

Woomer-Deters is considered one of North Carolina’s foremost experts on the public charge rule – of which some version has been used for many decades.

Kate Woomer-Deter

“It sets all these new rules for the type of person we want as an immigrant in this country, and that person is of working age, healthy, no medical issues, wealthy and English speaking – they have a preference in there for English speaking people, which has never been a requirement before for immigration until a person reaches the citizenship application,” she said. “That is a really pretty dramatic change to our immigration system.”

This new rule states that if green card applicants make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline, it will be heavily weighted against them. The federal poverty line for a family of one is $12,490 and for a family of four is $25,750, according to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

“If you make less than that, they’re going to hold it against you, and it doesn’t matter if you use any public benefit, if you use no benefits at all, if you never go near a benefit,” Woomer-Deters said. “The rule will make it much more difficult for family members here in the U.S. to sponsor their low-income spouses, parents, and other family members, if those family members are working hard every day but at low wages.

“Let’s say you are a citizen and you marry someone with DACA status who has lived in the U.S. since he was a small child. If that DACA holder does not earn more than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, he may not be able to obtain his green card even though he’s been working and has never used a public benefit.”

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; it’s an immigration policy that prevents individuals who were brought to America as children from being deported for a specific, renewable period and makes them eligible for a work permit.

North Carolina Asian Americans Together [6] (NCAAT) stated in a news release that the policy unfairly targets immigrants of color and favors money over family. The organization was part of a grassroots movement last fall that drew more than 266,000 public comments in opposition of the proposed rule changes.

The proposed rule was broader than the version released earlier this week, but it has still stoked fear and anger from opponents.

Chavi Koneru

“AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] communities are already feeling attacked and threatened with the recent failed push to add the citizenship question to Census 2020,” said Chavi Koneru, executive director of NCAAT. “This rule change is yet another assault on immigrant families, forcing them to choose between the things they need, like health and sustenance, and the people they love.”

The new rule will consider a number of factors, including age, health, family status, education, and skills in determining whether a green card applicant is more likely than not to become a public charge at any time in the future.

Woomer-Deters said that while the rule explains what DHS is going to look at, it does not explain how they’re going to weigh that information.

“The way the rule works is it’s called a ‘totality of the circumstances’ test, so what they’re going to do is they’re going to look at a number of factors about you and who you are and decide whether they can reject your green card. So that’s going to include your income, whether you’re of working age, whether you’re healthy, all those things, and it’s also going to look at the benefit use,” she explained. “It’s all lumped in a big pot – they’re going to look at all those things and cook them up in a potion, Harry Potter style, and then something’s just going to tell them whether you’re a public charge or not. The rule itself states: ‘DHS believes that the determination is inherently subjective in nature.’”

There are three specific benefits the new public charge rule applies to: non-emergency Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and public housing. Under old guidance, and also included in the new rule, the government will also scrutinize the use of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The rule does not apply to U.S. citizen children, pregnant women and children who use Medicaid or humanitarian categories of immigrants, including asylees, refugees, victims of trafficking and others.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for any of the benefits included in the rule, so they already do not use them. The rule also does not apply to green card holders because they’ve already passed the public charge test. The rule also will not be retroactive, so anyone who used those benefits before October of this year will not be penalized.

Woomer-Deters said the main message for immigrant communities is that they should not drop their U.S. children from receiving benefits. The rule only applies to the immigrants themselves – it will not count negatively against them if they do not use benefits but someone in their household does.

She said a leaked version of the rule released in February of 2018 included U.S. children, which caused a lot of confusion.

“We want families to know, there are very few people who are going to lose their access to public benefits because of this rule,” she added. “However, the rule has caused so much confusion that many people will drop out of benefit programs unnecessarily.”

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) did not provide information about how many legal immigrants use public benefits in the state, but Secretary Mandy Cohen spoke about how the public charge rule will make an impact.

“Jeopardizing children and families’ access to food, housing and healthcare will have lasting, negative impacts for North Carolina that will be felt by all of us,” she said.

She added that programs like SNAP improve health, promote family financial stability and save lives. Discouraging participation, as this rule does, she added, will have detrimental long-term effects.

“Children will bear the brunt of these effects as families withdraw from programs out of fear and confusion,” Cohen said. “In North Caro

Congressman David Price

lina, an estimated 250,000 children, the overwhelming majority of whom are American citizens, may be impacted. It should go without saying that nutrition, safe housing, and medical care are foundational to children’s healthy development and educational attainment.

As I expressed to the Department of Homeland Security when this rule was first proposed, these new changes are truly harmful to our state. I am focused on promoting policies that strengthen our communities and lead to a healthier and stronger North Carolina.”

North Carolina Democratic Congressman David Price said the new rule is discriminatory and a cruel idea.

“We’ve known this was coming, probably, this was just a rich menu of anti-immigrant measures that Stephen Miller and the White House and the Trump Administration have come up with,” he said Tuesday. “This is the worst.”

Price said people should not be denied the ability to become part of this country just because they need support at some point.

“The immigration system in this country should be accessible and fair and open and shouldn’t have those kinds of artificial burdens,” he added.

Giving immigrants an incentive to choose between feeding their families and not seeking needed healthcare because they could lose their immigration status is also a problem Price noted.

“There’s something really perverse about that,” he said. “I believe when people understand it, they will think this is a very extreme kind of measure, very unfair, and that it shouldn’t go anywhere. So we’ll challenge it. We’ll challenge it in Congress and in the courts, but it’s a pretty clear indication of where Donald Trump’s coming from and what his administration is up to.”