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The Trump administration's new policy to ensure immigrants are financially self-sufficient could prompt tens of thousands of non-citizens in Michigan to curb their use of public benefits, even though most legal immigrants are not subject to the new rule, experts said. 

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that 10.3 million non-citizens, including 116,000 in Michigan, are part of families receiving public benefits and could potentially be affected by the new rule.  

Immigrant advocates and service providers in Metro Detroit said Wednesday they've already had families asking to leave benefits programs out of fear or confusion over the regulation, which was announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"People who are already invisible are going to fall more into the shadow. They’re not going to come forth. The children are not going to get the help they need," said Seydi Sarr, founder of the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs in Detroit.

"We need to ensure communities understand they don’t need to get off benefits. They need to call and get correct information."

The new rule, which takes effect in mid-October, significantly expands the so-called "public charge" test used by immigration officials to determine if green-card applicants will be likely to use certain public benefits in the future such as food stamps, Medicaid or housing vouchers. 

Current policy only considers immigrants to be "public charges" if they primarily depend on cash benefits or receive government-funded, long-term institutional care.

President Donald Trump praised the new policy Tuesday on his way to an event in Pennsylvania.

"I think it’s long overdue," Trump said. "I am tired of seeing our taxpayer paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things. So I think we’re doing it right."

Of the roughly 301,000 non-citizens in Michigan, an estimated 78,000 receive at least one public benefit mentioned in the new public charge rule, according to an analysis of 2014-16 Census Bureau survey data by the Migration Policy Institute.

However, few of those non-citizens (and none of their U.S. citizen relatives) would be directly affected by the rule because the majority are green-card holders and not subject to the new regulation, according to the institute. 

The rule also doesn’t apply to other categories of immigrants, including refugees, asylum applicants, victims of human trafficking and pregnant women.

But advocates said a wider population could feel the impact of the rule if, as anticipated, a significant number of non-citizens and their family members stop using benefit programs for which they're eligible. 

The arguments came as Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and 12 other attorneys general sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the new public charge rule. They argued that the new rule expands the government’s ability to deny visa renewal or permanent residency to anyone using a range of short-term benefits without a clear formula for making the decision.

Before the rule was published, a survey of non-citizen adults released by the Urban Institute in May found 14% of adults in immigrant families reported not participating in a public benefit program last year for fear of risking a future green card. 

In Michigan, such a trend could affect as many as 248,000 total family members when including U.S. citizen children and adults within the same family as a benefits-receiving non-citizen, according to MPI's census analysis. 

"This chilling effect has been seen here in ACCESS in our clinic," said Madiha Tariq, deputy director of the ACCESS Community Health & Research Center in Dearborn. 

Tariq said Wednesday that patients are asking to drop their enrollment in programs including the federal health insurance marketplace, Medicaid and the publicly funded nutrition program for pregnant and postpartum mothers, infants and young children known as WIC.

"We have people who are off coverage because of the chilling affect that are not coming in for preventative care. Not utilizing preventative care makes people unhealthier and makes people come when they have extreme needs," Tariq said.

"It’s going to impact public health in the long term."

Renell Weathers of the Michigan League for Public Policy stressed that the rule only penalizes green-card applicants for benefits that the individual applicant receives and not for any benefits that their children or other dependents receive. 

"The best way to strengthen our country is to ensure that the families who live in it have the basics they need to thrive," Weathers said.

"One fourth of children in the U.S. have at least one immigrant parent. Our future depends on the success of immigrant families."

Experts anticipate that the new rule will have the greatest effect on prospective immigrants trying to enter the country through family-based immigration, particularly lower-income and less-educated applicants from poorer countries in Latin America and Africa. 

That's because the policy gives immigration officers the discretion to deny admission or green cards to people with incomes or financial assets below 250% of the poverty line, or about $62,000 for a family of four. 

Other factors the government may now consider in addition to household income are limited English proficiency and education level. 

“We can imagine this will impact many people coming forward to get permanent residency through a family-member sponsor, and I expect we’ll see a chilling effect for those applicants as well because it’s adding risk and uncertainty to a process that they’re entitled to,” said Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

The Migration Policy Institute found that 2.3 million of the 4 million non-citizens who arrived legally during the past five years (56%) did not have income sufficient to meet the 250% standard.

That standard would also have a regional impact, based on MPI's analysis, which found that 71% of recently arrived Mexicans and Central Americans, 69% of Africans and 52% of Asian immigrants would have fallen short of the 250% income threshold.

"This is definitely an attack on those who are not wealthy, an attack on the poor,” Quinn said. “It really dispels this notion that you can come with little in terms of resources to the United States and work hard and fight to be part of the American dream.”

The Trump administration wants to ensure that immigrants to the United States are able to support themselves and won't depend on public handouts, said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  

He told CNN on Tuesday that the well-known inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” of immigrants to the United States was referring to “people coming from Europe.” 

"That poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren't in the right class," Cuccinelli said, referring to the poem by Emma Lazarus.

On NPR, Cuccinelli was asked whether the "huddled masses" words in the Lazarus poem are part of the American ethos.

“They certainly are," he replied. "Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge."

Staff writer Sarah Rahal contributed 

mburke@detroitnews.com

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