High court ruling worries some immigration advocates

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By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service

LANSING — After a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, immigrant rights advocates say they worry immigrant families who qualify for public benefits won’t apply in fear of being denied green card status. 

The 5-4 decision, which  allowed the Trump administration to implement a public charge rule, will give U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services increased discretion to deny green cards to immigrants they contend will rely on public benefits.

In the past, federal law has allowed the agency to deny green cards to applicants who were likely to rely on cash benefits. 

A green card gives recipients the right to live and work in the U.S. on a semi-permanent basis, typically 10 years. 

The change that takes effect Feb. 24 expands the public charge rule to include non-cash benefits, like Medicaid and housing assistance, as additional disqualifiers for green cards. 

According to staff attorney Tania Morris Diaz of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Ypsilanti, the change is causing misinformation and leading some families to unnecessarily stop their benefits. 

“A lot of misinformation is out there, and we’re sort of living in this era of unwelcomeness, so a lot of people are afraid and relinquishing their benefits,” Diaz said. 

The center,  which provides legal services from offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti, is attempting to spread awareness to groups that can remain on public assistance, she said. 

“We must ensure that families are equipped with accurate information about public charge so they can make decisions based on facts and not fear,” Diaz said. 

“Many immigrant families, including those with U.S. citizen children, have been unnecessarily disenrolling from public benefits as a precaution in light of the new rule,” she said.

Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for public assistance.

The administration defended the change as necessary to promote immigrant success and self-sufficiency. 

“By requiring those seeking to come or stay in the United States to rely on their own resources, families and communities, we will encourage self-sufficiency, promote immigrant success and protect American taxpayers,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the second-highest ranking  official at the Department of Homeland Security.

According to Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, only a small number of immigrants will  be affected by the change, but confusion is causing many more documented families to disenroll. 

The department opposes the change.

In August 2019, 86,298  documented non-citizens received public assistance in Michigan. Of them, 611 could be affected by the change, Wheaton said. 

“In doing the calculation, we started with the 86,298 noncitizen immigrants receiving public assistance in August and then subtracted people who would not be subject to the public charge requirement, such as refugees, asylees and others,” he said.  “But people in this category could have heard about the public charge rule and assumed it applies to them.” 

According to Diaz, the change could also be a problem in Michigan for legal immigrants  who fall into unfavorable age, wealth and education categories.

“This new rule is essentially a wealth test that severely changes the face of family-based immigration in the United States and threatens the health, nutrition and housing of families all over the country,” Diaz said. “The rule is designed to disproportionately impact low-income communities of color, and undermines our nation’s core values. 

 According to Immigration Services, factors like age, health, education and skills can also determine whether an applicant may at any point become a public charge. 

Diaz said,  “It’s hard to say how it will affect immigrants because it has expanded into a broad test that gives the government the discretion to decide whether someone may become a public charge in the future.”