State urges staff not to discourage immigrants from seeking public benefits
Michigan officials say the Trump administration's new policy to ensure immigrants are financially self-sufficient could directly affect just over 600 of the nearly 86,300 legal immigrants receiving public benefits in the state.
The revised rule takes effect Oct. 15 and aims to block individuals from receiving green cards if they are deemed likely to rely on public benefits in the future, possibly making it harder for some immigrants to gain legal status in the country.
State officials are concerned that the rule could have an impact far beyond 600 people by keeping otherwise eligible legal immigrants from seeking public assistance due to confusion that the rule applies to them or over fear of retribution by immigration officials.
Robert Gordon, director of the state Department of Health & Human Services, last week warned staff who administer benefits programs about various exemptions to the policy for specific categories of immigrants, urging staffers not to discourage anyone from applying for benefits.
In a public letter sent to social service organizations and others Tuesday, Gordon raised concerns about "harmful misunderstandings" about the rule that could deter individuals from seeking help, even though they're in the country legally and would benefit from assistance that won't affect their immigration status.
"We are all stronger when human beings can live with greater security and dignity by getting the help they are entitled to under our laws," Gordon wrote. "We must not discourage individuals from getting benefits based on misunderstandings."
In the letter, Gordon reviewed the rule's exemptions and said staffers should encourage individuals to consult an attorney in complicated cases.
His letter was prompted in part by hearing from community leaders working with Arab-American immigrants in southeast Michigan and others assisting Latino migrant workers in the west.
"We have heard about people asking to terminate their benefits," Gordon said. "We do see this as a very real issue."
The Trump administration's revised rule 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 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.
In response to a Detroit News request, Gordon's department this week released data showing that 86,298 non-citizen immigrants in Michigan were receiving public assistance as of last month, including food stamps, cash assistance or Medicaid. Roughly 301,000 non-citizens reside in Michigan.
An analysis by the state determined 611 — less than 1% of the 86,298 immigrants — could potentially be affected by the new rule due to the type of benefits they receive and because they either don't have a green card or otherwise don't fall into one of the exempt categories of immigrants.
The state data exclude undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible for public aid.
It also excludes immigrants receiving Section 8 housing vouchers, a program administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority which has said only five of 28,500 households enrolled include non-citizens.
Gordon highlighted the categories of immigrants that aren't subject to the public-charge test, including those who are citizens, those who already have green cards or are refugees, asylum applicants, victims of human trafficking, or pregnant women or children receiving Medicaid.
He noted the rule also does not penalize green-card applicants for benefits received by family members, including children.
Gordon said similar information was shared with department staffers last week and that he intends to hold calls with state office leaders to provide additional guidance on the new rule.
Immigrant advocates and service providers in Metro Detroit said last month they have already had families asking to leave benefits programs after the administration announced the policy.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and 12 other attorneys general have sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the new rule,and a court hearing is set for Oct. 3. They argue it 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.
Experts anticipate that the 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.