By Belén Gómez, Guest Columnist
A new “public charge” rule arriving next month will dramatically expand the number of immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security could deem ineligible for green cards and admission to the United States on account of, among other thing, income level and prior use of certain public benefits. Implementation of this rule, set for October 15, 2019, will lead to the separation of families and a systematic erosion of our nation’s most championed values, beginning with those inscribed on the base of Lady Liberty. Without the courts saving us from the Trump Administration’s new benchmark for whether intending immigrants are self-sufficient, the U.S. will support clear favoritism for privileged, and English-speaking people from other countries.
These may seem like outlandish claims to some, and look, perhaps if I didn’t see folks that would be affected on a daily basis as an immigration attorney, perhaps I wouldn’t understand the effects, either. But let me explain why this rule change is just another “invisible wall” from lawful immigration.
There are two main standards laid out in the more than 800-page rule change that the government will be using to determine whether someone is likely to be a “public charge.” One is, the “threshold standard” that assesses whether someone will be “primarily dependent” based on cash public benefits or long-term institutionalization at the government’s expense. Generally, receiving benefits for 9 to 12 months out of a 36-month period will automatically trigger the public charge.
This rule is based on the premise that immigrants come to leach off of the system, because the scapegoating of immigrants has been politically advantageous in the past. However, those without lawful immigration status don’t even qualify for most public benefits–no matter their need. And immigrants are expected to pay taxes for services they don’t qualify for.
The only exceptions the public charge rule gives are for a person that may receive aid and care for a disabled, ill, or elderly person at home, spouses or children of military members (enlisted, active, or reserves), certain victims of crimes, children under 21, and women who receive aid while pregnant. If a person married to a U.S. citizen veteran were somehow able to receive 9 months of non-emergency Medicaid or even any amount in subsidies to purchase their own insurance under Covered California, they would automatically be considered a “public charge” since their spouse isn’t enlisted, active or in the reserves.
But the real danger of this rule change comes in the second standard of review known as “the totality of the circumstances.” Factors that can be considered under this test are an applicant’s age, health, education and skills, English fluency, employment history, credit score, taxes, assets, financial means to pay for medical costs, and family status–we’re talking whether family members have or are receiving public benefits. Immigration attorneys have already seen the arbitrary ways this standard is applied for applicants trying to enter the country from abroad.
This rule is already having a chilling effect on families throughout the country who are choosing to forgo essential services to avoid imperiling their immigration status. It is horrifying to think that a parent may cancel needed aid for their U.S. citizen child out of fear of never having the possibility of gaining lawful status or of being separated from their U.S. citizen child.
Public charge is yet another brick in the Trump administration’s “invisible wall,” a far-reaching set of policies and practices restricting legal immigration to and in the U.S. It will needlessly prevent vast numbers of hardworking, law-abiding individuals in the U.S. from obtaining green cards.
Belén Gómez is an immigration attorney based in Fullerton.