LAKE WORTH, Fla. — In just a week, some immigrant families will face new challenges as they try to become permanent residents or U.S. citizens.
Public assistance, like Section 8 housing vouchers or food stamps, could play a big role in new rules that are going into effect soon.
The changes involve the public charge rule, a vital part of the green light families need in getting a green card.
The rule is nothing new — it’s been on the books since the late 1800s. However, what is new to us what defines a public charge.
Back in 1882, when immigrants arrived in the U.S., they had to prove they had cash and enough money to get where they were going, once they landed.
In 1996, the government decided other factors should be included as part of a green card application – like a person’s finances, health, age, education – and whether a sponsor, such as a family member who is a citizen or already has a green card, could financially vouch for you.
Now, the rule will change again in 2019. Immigration officials will be able to deny a green card if they think some will “likely” end up needing public assistance, like welfare, food stamps or Medicaid.
“It’s taken us like a hurricane here in Florida,” said Gina Fraga, an immigration lawyer for Acosta & Fraga Immigration Law in Lake Worth.
Immigration attorneys like Fraga are working hard to sort through changes involving the rule, which she says will put even more scrutiny on the 400,000 people who apply to become permanent U.S. residents each year.
“The officer is going to look at your age, your health, your financial status. So even if you have a co-sponsor, that’s not good enough anymore,’ she said.
According to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, here are a few important points regarding the public charge rule:
- The new rule interprets a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) pertaining to inadmissibility. The inadmissibility ground at issue says a person is inadmissible if they are likely to become a public charge. INA § 212(a)(4).
- This law only applies to individuals seeking admission into the United States or applying for adjustment of status. This provision of the law does not apply to all immigrants.
- Public charge and this rule do not apply in the naturalization process, through which lawful permanent residents apply to become U.S. citizens.
Fraga said the rule will also look backward, so if someone needed such help in the past — it could count against them.
“It’s going to exclude medically needy families. It’s going to exclude the elderly. People who are retired. Also, young people and college students,” she said.
The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth worries that could mislead some families — like those with protective status who are exempt from the rule changes — into not accepting public assistance when they really need it due to misinformation.
“It hurts to see that individuals are choosing to opt-out of these programs that promote health and stability in their homes,” said Daniel Morgan, outreach director at the center.
Right now, Fraga and her team — along with many other immigration lawyers across the country — are trying to process green card applications as quickly as possible by the end of the week. Monday is a national holiday and Tuesday is when the new rule changes officially take effect.
“The changes will also affect new forms so anybody who has a pending case and has something they want to file — if they file it after next week using the old form, the case is going to be rejected,” she said.
The Trump administration argues the change is needed so that public assistance is safe-guarded for U.S. citizens and residents who need it.
“The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, in making the announcement in August.
Fraga said there are still many unknowns regarding the actual enforcement of the rule changes when the time comes.
“I’ve spoken to officers at the local office, they don’t even know how they’re going to be applying this,” she said.
The rule changes are also not appealable if a green card is denied on these grounds.
“And right now, there’s a backlog of over 300,000 cases in immigration court,” said Fraga. “So people are gonna be in limbo, and that’s what concerns me about this.”
The new rule is already being challenged in court by several states but it could take several years to process those lawsuits.
Data and information from a Scripps national report contributed to this article.