Send them back: Trump places new obstacles on legal immigrants’ path to citizenship

People being sworn in during a naturalization ceremony at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., July 3, 2013.

The sonnet, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” by American poet Emma Lazarus engraved on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty has long been a national symbol for America’s embrace of immigrants.

But to many people, “The New Colossus,” the 1883-sonnet, has, since last week ceased to appear as emblematic of what the United States had once stood for — a country welcoming of immigrants of all hues and status.

As part of President Trump’s so called merit-based immigration system, the administration released its final “public charge” rule Aug. 12 that would restrict the legal immigration of low-income immigrants, green card seekers, and visa candidates. Under the rule, applicants, who use public aid such as SNAP food stamps, Medicaid, or housing assistance, can be categorized as a “public charge” and thereby denied the opportunity to apply for a visa or a green card. Even for granting citizenship, a person’s public charge history may be a deciding factor.

Public charge is a term used in immigration law to refer to a person who is primarily dependent on the government for support. The rule, which has already been challenged in courts, is scheduled to take effect on Oct. 15, 60 days after the publication date.

Under the current system, an immigrant may be denied a green card if he or she is a “public charge” but under the proposed new law, public charge will mean someone who has received, or are more likely than not to receive government benefits in the future

The new rule would broaden the definition of who is to be considered a public charge so that it includes immigrants who use one or more government programs listed in the proposed rule.

Lazarus’s sonnet was inspired by the plight of immigrants and refugees and her own experiences and was a radical call to welcome all immigrants, irrespective of color or creed.

But that welcoming spirit seems to have all but died in the Trump era.

“I strongly feel that this policy of Trump is really shortsighted because all these people, who are legally here in the U.S. and may have availed themselves of government help by way of Medicaid or housing assistance have made contributions in their own small way and America needs all of them,” said Sudha Acharya, executive director of Queens-based South Asian Council for Social Services.

SACSS is a nonprofit that seeks to empower and integrate underserved South Asians and other immigrants into the economic and civic life of New York, helping individuals and families in the areas of healthcare access, senior services, other benefits and civic engagement.

“My office phone has been ringing incessantly for the past few days with South Asian callers including Indian-Americans, all of whom are in the U.S. legally, asking whether they should stop taking Medicaid or should dis-enroll their children from New York’s Child Health Plus, which provides free or low-cost health insurance for children under the age of 19 who do not qualify for Medicaid and do not have other health insurance coverage,” Acharya told this correspondent.

“I think the worst thing that this rule is doing is to create fear in the community so that even for things they are eligible for or have the right to use like the Child Health Plus, they are seeking to stay away from, lest joining such programs should jeopardize their green card or even citizenship,” Acharya said.

The number of public charge denials for applicants from all nations rose during 2018. In a report this month Politico said preliminary data obtained by it shows 12,179 visa rejections on public charge grounds through July 29 — which puts the department on pace to surpass last year’s total. The State Department disqualified only 1,033 people on public charge grounds in fiscal 2016.

It said applicants from various other countries — including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Haiti and the Dominican Republic — also saw dramatic increases in denials attributed to the risk that they would consume government benefits.

An Indian-American lawyer noted that there are people from the community legally present in the U.S. who take government benefits, including Medicaid. “Their number may not be very large but these people who are far from being well off, do take advantage of government benefits,” the lawyer said.

Kenneth Thomas Cuccinelli, Trump administration’s acting director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services office said last week, modifying the famous words of Lazarus that America will only embrace immigrants who can “stand on their own two feet” and “not become a public charge.”

In a subsequent interview, Cuccinelli went a step further, saying the poem referred to “mostly people coming from Europe,” according to CBS News and other media.

The Asian Pacific American Advocates, a national civil rights organization, noted that the new public charge rule also disproportionately affects U.S. citizen children whose parents are non-citizens, saying in a statement that it is clear that the Trump administration has not read the inscription at the Statue of Liberty which says: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

“The Trump administration’s new rule on public charge is contrary to our long-standing American values of liberty and providing humanitarian aid both inside and outside of our borders. The organization will continue to fight against this cruel rule and the administration’s efforts to deny and devalue the immigrant communities that this country was built upon,” it said.

Others like Asian Americans Advancing Justice noted that the expansion of the rule is part and parcel of the administration’s crusade to instill fear in immigrant communities of color.

“By including criteria such as English language proficiency as a negative factor for obtaining permanent residency, the administration is telling immigrants that they are not welcome here. This is unacceptable. Xenophobia has no place in our country, let alone our laws,” said Laboni Hoq, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles.

Prakash Khatri, a Maryland-based immigration attorney, who is a former ombudsman of USCIS, appointed to the position by the Bush administration, noted that these people who take such benefits, although are in the U.S. legally, are generally low income people, including South Asians.

“Traditionally, some of these things like taking Medicaid would be ignored at the time of granting permanent residency or citizenship to somebody but with this new rule such waiver may not be available now,” Khatri told India Abroad.

Asian Pacific American Advocates, a national civil rights organization, said the new public charge rule also disproportionately affects U.S. citizen children whose parents are non-citizens.

The rule also allows age, education level, and pre-existing medical conditions to be considered as factors in determining admissibility to the United States, directly discriminating against the elderly, people with disabilities, and immigrants who come from low-income or low education backgrounds.

Khatri claimed that much of what is being done now is more to protect U.S. citizens and other legal people from having to be burdened by additional taxes for people who may come and take advantage of government programs.

“For example, under the family unification program Indian-Americans bring a whole lot of people, including their parents and in-laws, elderly people, and they become permanent residents before they get citizenship. Most of these people will take Medicaid and sometimes food stamps,” Khatri said.

“People take advantage of the system just because it is there — it is a cash cow for them. Some of them manage to become dependent and put both parents on supplemental income and Medicaid and they start depending on the income for their livelihood.

“So, that is the kind of issues that this new rule seeks to address and stop.”

While the majority of the Indian-Americans do not accept government benefits, there is no gainsaying the fact that there are a sizeable number of Indian-Americans whose financial wherewithal is very limited and many of them live in poverty.

Acharya whose organization works among the South Asian community primarily in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, said some people say the economy is better and unemployment is down but still there are so many South Asians who come to our food pantry regularly. “Some of them work on two jobs but evidently they still cannot make two ends meet. So, one cannot deny there is poverty among South Asian community forcing some of them to take public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps,” Acharya said.

According to 2017 Pew Research Center report based on American Community Survey, although the Indian-American poverty level is much below the national poverty level, there still is a sizeable number of the members of the community — 7.2 percent — who live in poverty.

Khatri, however, pointed out that relatives or educated grown-up children of permanent residents or citizens are the ones who help their parents get out of poverty but now what the new rules is saying is that if one is poor, he or she will potentially not be able to bring his children or sponsor them because of assumption that the children will likely to continue to use public benefits like their parents.

He said the new rule is a kind of short-term vision that may see some gains but in the long term it may hurt because it will lead to missing out on a lot of people who would have aided this nation much more than the money or resources their parents or grandparents had taken from the system.

“It is often from among the poor that some of the future leaders of this country come up. Many people who are millionaires or billionaires today are the grandchildren of refugees or very poor people. Under today’s rules they would not have been allowed in this country and their children and grandchildren would have never helped this country prosper. So, I think there are two sides to the coin that one needs to see,” Khatri said in the interview.

Stuart Anderson, executive director of National Foundation for American Policy, a nonprofit policy organization said that the purpose of the public charge regulation is to reduce legal immigration to the United States. He said immigrants are already prohibited from using federal welfare programs for 5 years or longer after arriving in America.

“The rule uses the potential use of benefits based on vague or questionable criteria to prevent U.S. citizens from being able to sponsor a spouse, child or parent, and to also restrict lawful permanent residents from sponsoring a spouse or child,” Anderson said in an interview

“Immigrants have helped other families immigrate to America throughout the country’s history. This regulation is an attempt to circumvent the U.S. Congress, which has declined on numerous occasions to reduce legal immigration to the United States.”

In a commentary published this month, the Migration Policy Institute said the impact of the new standard would fall most heavily upon Asian, Latin American, and African immigrants, making the proposal something of a “modern-day version of the National Origins Quota Act of 1924.

That since-repudiated law sought to tilt immigration to Western Europe.

“At the same time, powerful, less-noticed provisions of the potential rule would effectively create the potential for a major back-door overhaul of the legal immigration system by imposing new standards that would fall most heavily on would-be immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Family-based immigration, which has been in the administration’s crosshairs, would be most affected, with significant regional, national, and racial effects on future flows,” the opinion piece by Jeanne Batalova, Michael Fix, and Mark Greenberg, all senior MPI Fellows said.

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