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Shawn Vestal: Proposed rule changes in immigration policy don’t favor ‘huddled masses’

December 5, 2018

Maybe it’s time to revise that slogan on the Statue of Liberty.

“Give me your healthy, your wealthy, your medically insured, your families earning more than 250 percent of the federally designated poverty level … ”

That seems to be the aim of proposed rule changes in federal immigration policy, which would significantly broaden the reasons the government might determine that an immigrant is a “public charge” – “someone who is, or is likely to become, primarily reliant upon government benefits or assistance programs for survival,” according to the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.

It would also explicitly favor healthier and wealthier immigrants, and particularly those who earn 250 percent of the poverty level – $63,000 a year for a family of four. And it would, in essence, put lawful immigrants in low-paying jobs at risk for deportation for seeking help in an emergency.

“Poor huddled masses need not apply,” said Ken Isserlis, a longtime local attorney and board member of Refugee Connections Spokane.

Isserlis and Refugee Connections, which works with both refugees and immigrants, are among more than 120,000 people and organizations who have filed comments with the federal government objecting to the proposed changes.

The rule change would make it easier to reject green-card applications, deny visa extensions and even deport immigrants who are living and working here legally if they have used certain government benefits for which they are legally qualified. The changes would affect legal immigrants and those seeking green cards or looking to renew visas. Critics say they would have the effect of penalizing immigrants seeking to work and raise their station if they’ve ever had to access temporary safety-net services, and are likely to deepen poverty and worsen health among immigrant families in America.

“My concern about this is it’s cruel, unnecessary and un-American,” Isserlis said. “And it harms the country. How many capable, contributing citizens would not have gotten in here if this rule had been in place? It’s a wall of its own. A bureaucratic wall, rather than a physical wall.”

The Protecting Immigrants Families campaign, which opposes Trump administration actions on a wide range of fronts, says the proposed changes would “effectively institute a wealth test on people seeking to come to the United States.”

In doing so, they would re-engineer a central value of the American immigration system – orienting it toward wealthier immigrants, and whiter ones, over those who are seeking opportunity and simply “striving to breathe free.” While the political debate about immigration has focused on undocumented immigrants and the Central American caravan, these rules changes by the Trump administration – changes that are mostly flying under the radar – would target people who came here and followed the rules.

“This would basically change the immigration system as we know it to favor wealthy people over those who are working their way up, which is what the immigration story of our country is,” said Wendy Cervantes, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.

Worse, the proposed changes are part of an overall approach toward immigration under the Trump administration – from the rhetoric to the policies – that are already harming immigrant communities, and particularly children, according to a report Cervantes co-authored.

Based on interviews and focus groups in six states, the report finds a population of young immigrant children under siege from anxiety and fear. They’re afraid their parents will be deported, isolated in their homes, less likely to seek help or interact with others, and are often in tumultuous economic circumstances – all factors that can have lifelong consequences for young children.

The public rule change is just one part of that. When federal officials consider applications for lawful permanent residency (green cards) or admission to the country, including diversity visa applications or applications to renew or extend visas, they consider the “totality of circumstances” in deciding whether to reject someone under the public-charge rule.

Currently, whether an immigrant who has received cash welfare benefits or long-term medical care is considered as a part of that decision. Under the proposal, the rule would add many more public benefits to consideration, including nutrition assistance, health care and public housing. Those are programs only available to certain documented immigrants and their families.

The proposal would also implement consideration for family income – giving “negative weight” to families at or below 125 percent of the poverty line and “heavily positive” weight to those at 250 percent or higher.

Cervantes says such a change will have a ripple effect throughout migrant communities, causing families to avoid seeking help with food and shelter if they need it out of fear of deportation. Such communities are often interwoven heavily with people of different immigration statuses; even if the rule didn’t affect them, the changes are so complicated and the fears of repercussions are so great that many people might just avoid seeking help in a crisis, Cervantes said.

DSHS officials have put out information on the proposed changes, but the complexity of the changes – added to the complexity of the immigration system – produces a situation that would frighten off anyone.

The agency’s FAQ’s concludes with a sobering recommendation: “Individuals or families who have questions or concerns about the impact of using public benefits on their immigration status should contact an immigration attorney.”

A working, legal immigrant whose child falls sick might now wonder who to call first: attorney or doctor.

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