Immigrants and their families will suffer great harm if long-standing policies are changed by the Department of Homeland Security to further limit access to public benefits, the U.S. bishops have said.
The rule would consider whether applicants for legal permanent resident status are likely to become a burden to public services.
For the U.S. bishops, the rule is “likely to prevent families from accessing important medical and social services vital to public health and welfare.”
“This further compounds strict eligibility guidelines already in place preventing many immigrants from receiving federal aid,” the bishops added.
The bishops’ Sept. 23 statement came from Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas and Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, the respective chairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and the Committee on Domestic and Social Development.
The initial analysis by the bishops’ conference suggests the rule will be “very harmful to families” and cause fear among immigrant families who are “already struggling to fulfill the American Dream,” they said.
On Sept. 22 the Department of Homeland Security announced a proposed rule it said would “clearly define long-standing law” to ensure that those who seek to enter and remain in the U.S. “can support themselves financially and will not be reliant on public benefits.”
“The Department takes seriously its responsibility to be transparent in its rulemaking and is welcoming public comment on the proposed rule,” said Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
“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 changes will not affect immigrants who already have green cards, but they could force millions of other immigrants to choose between accepting public assistance and seeking a green card to live and work legally in the U.S., the New York Times reports. It could also force older immigrants to stop participating in low-cost prescription drug programs lest they be considered ineligible for resident status.
Some immigrants who do not understand the new rule may avoid seeking legal status for fear of losing benefits, Charles Wheeler, a legal expert at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, told the New York Times.
The Department of Homeland Security cited a historic standard that considers whether an alien seeking admission to the U.S. would become a “public charge.” Such a person is defined by whether he or she will receive certain public benefits above a defined threshold or for longer than a defined period of time. This was the most common reason for refusing admission at ports of entry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the announcement said.
The U.S. bishops, however, said the notice “undercuts decades of administrative policies and guidelines on how immigrants are treated by the United States government.”
While federal law has always required people seeking green cards to prove they will not be a burden, the government has never previously considered food assistance and some other public benefits to be such a burden, the New York Times reported.
Potential permanent immigrants to the U.S. will be affected by the law, as will students, workers and others with temporary visas who seek to stay permanently. Some immigrants could be asked to post cash bonds of at least $10,000 to secure their green cards under the new rule.
The Trump administration said the rule could affect 382,000 people per year.
The Department of Homeland Security stressed that the determination of whether someone would be a public charge is “prospective” based on the totality of a person’s circumstances. These legal factors include age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills.
The public benefits to be considered include federal, state, local or tribal cash assistance; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Supplemental Security Income; Medicaid, with limited exceptions for emergency benefits and some education-related disability services; Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy; food stamps; government-funded institutionalization for long-term care; public housing; and Section 8 housing choice vouchers and rental assistance.
Asylees, refugees, and other recognized vulnerable individuals are not impacted by the rule. In considering eligibility for admission, the Department of Homeland Security will not consider public benefits received by immigrants serving in active duty or reserve U.S. armed forces, or by their spouse or children.
Other categories excluded from consideration include disaster relief, emergency medical assistance, benefits received by an immigrant’s U.S. citizen children, and Medicaid benefits for children or potential adopted children of U.S. citizens. Families earning under 15 percent of the federal poverty line will also be exempt.
Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, there will be a public comment period of 60 days.