Alex Rossman: Public charge rule attacks immigrants and American values

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In my 20-year career, I thought I had seen all of the tricks, maneuvers and strategies in the political procedure book. 

But President Donald Trump has found something new and has been using it ad nauseam. Exploiting complex and technical rules and regulations, his administration has turned government bureaucracy into a nearly untouchable partisan tool to circumvent Congress and bend our nation’s laws to the president’s whims. 

This tool was used most recently with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s official publication Wednesday of the new public charge immigration rule in the federal register. 

Currently, “public charge” refers to someone who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. It requires an immigrant to show s/he will not likely become dependent on government assistance when applying for a green card or visa, and only considers past reliance on cash assistance for income support or federally funded long-term institutionalized care.

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But the new rule has a much broader application and deems immigrants a public charge if they or their family have used a variety of government services, including health care through Medicaid, food assistance, Section 8 housing vouchers and more.

This dangerous rule will substantially restrict access to green cards and various types of visas for immigrants who are not already relatively well-off financially. And it fundamentally changes our nation’s approach to immigration, making family income and potential use of health care, nutrition or housing programs a central consideration in whether to offer people an opportunity to make their lives in this country.

In doing so, the new public charge rule is perpetuating two unfortunate Trumpisms in one — that immigrants are a scourge on our country … unless they are rich. 

A majority of immigrants come to America in search of a better life, often leaving harsh circumstances and making significant sacrifices to get here. But now the Trump administration wants to consider their green cards based on their economic standing at one particular moment, not based on their promise and potential.

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That’s counter to the principles our nation has always strived to embrace. Hardly any of our ancestors that immigrated to America came with significant wealth. And the new public charge rule is harshly closing the book on future immigrants’ success stories that embody the American dream.  

This change forces millions of families to choose between the things they need and the people they love, as families are likely to feel forced to make a choice between accessing vital programs and services and having a fair shot in our immigration system. 

It also means higher costs for states, cities and businesses. The new rule is estimated to cost Michigan over $214 million in federal funding and more than 2,000 lost jobs. The negative ripple effects through the state economy could be as high as $409 million as hospitals and doctors’ offices see reduced revenues and as folks buy less in supermarkets and other stores.

For immigrants applying for green cards through family members, the new rule also shifts focus from a sponsor’s income to the applicant’s age, health, family status, income, assets, education and skills. The stringent income requirements alone will make it extremely difficult for a large percentage of family-based immigrants to legalize their status or reunite with family members. 

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Public charge has raised something else I have never encountered professionally before. Just by talking about the issue, you are playing directly into your opponents’ hands, and furthering the underlying anti-immigrant intent of it.

That’s because of something called the “chilling effect.” In the legal world, that refers to the suppression of rights through the use of fear tactics. In this case, any families, even people who already have a green card, or refugees, asylees and others who are exempt from the rule, are expected to be frightened and confused by the rule.

It is estimated that the chilling effect of the public charge change would extend to 283,000 people in Michigan, including 114,000 children. These are people in families with at least one non-citizen member, and who are receiving one of the named benefit programs. Right now, the large majority of the impacted individuals experiencing this chilling effect are U.S. citizens.

With that chilling effect in mind, the Michigan League for Public Policy and our advocacy partners have remained relatively mum on this impending rule change the last few months. But with the rule’s official publication, the time has come to speak out and educate Michigan immigrants, policymakers and the public on what’s happening.

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On Aug. 14, the same day the rule was published, leaders of the Protecting Immigrant Families Michigan campaign, led by the Michigan League for Public Policy, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC), the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), the African Bureau for Immigration and Social Affairs and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, held a press conference to address the change.

Our groups joined together to decry the public charge change and its role in the federal administration’s broader anti-immigrant attacks in policy and posturing. We again urged immigrants who are unaffected by the rule to not let it intimidate them away from using the health, nutrition and other services available to them and their loved ones. And we implored concerned policymakers, advocates and immigrants to keep fighting.

Later that afternoon, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that she has joined with 13 other states in a lawsuit against the public charge rule. With the rule now being out in the open, the fight is, too. The rule’s official publication launched a 60-day grace period before it goes into effect on Oct. 15, and the Protecting Immigrant Families campaign will be working every one of those 60 days to stop it. 

Immigrant families with questions about public charge should call MIRC at 734-239-6863 for free and confidential information.

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