Advocates: Public charge rule change harms legal immigrants

Detroit News staff and wire reports
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Immigration advocates in Michigan are protesting a proposed rule amendment announced by the Department of Homeland Security that would require immigrants to not rely on public benefits, saying the change will cause an undue burden on families who are already here. 

The federal rule change would make family income and potential use of health care, nutrition or housing programs a central consideration, likely resulting in the denial of green cards and visas to hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible applicants, the groups argued Thursday.

“(It) upends the entire system, designed to harm immigrants by creating fear and heightening requirements for public assistance," said Susan Reed, managing attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. "It's like climbing Mount Everest."

The Department of Homeland Security says the revised rule would allow immigration officials to look at whether a person applying to stay in the U.S. could end up a "public charge" in the future and deny them green cards based on this. 

“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a  release issued last month. "This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

The proposed rule was officially published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, kicking off a 60-day public comment period. If the rule is enacted, it would take effect 60 days after that.

Until now, the guidelines in use since 1999 referred to someone primarily dependent on cash assistance, income maintenance or government support for long-term institutionalization.

The Department of Homeland Security wants to redefine a "public charge" as someone who is likely to receive public benefits at any time. And the definition has been broadened to include SNAP or food assistance, Medicaid, housing assistance or subsidies for Medicare Part D.

Refugees or asylum seekers would be exempt, and the rule would not be applied retroactively, the government said.

An average 544,000 people apply annually for a green card, with about 382,000 falling into categories that would be subject to this review, according to the government.

The revised rule "seeks to better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States ... are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor and private organizations," the proposal said.

"It's a continuation of mean policies affecting immigrants — from building walls to separating families, detaining children, calling Mexicans rapists, banning Muslims," said Hassan Jaber, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). "It's an attack on family-based immigration, an assault on our history as a country of immigrants."

In general, immigrants are a small portion of those receiving public benefits. For example, non-citizen immigrants make up only 6.5 percent of all those participating in Medicaid. More than 87 percent of participants are native-born. The same goes for food assistance, where immigrants make up only 8.8 percent of recipients, and over 85 percent of participants are native-born.

Also participating speaking out against the proposal Thursday were the Michigan League for Public Policy, the African Bureau of Immigration & Social Affairs, Michigan United, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp.

"(The rule change) would force many immigrants to choose between accessing essential public services and keeping their families together," said Cindy Bamboa, community organizing and advocacy director of the DHDC. 

Even people here legally are “plagued with ramifications of anti-immigrant sentiment," she said.

Associated Press contributed to this report.