Local immigration attorney responds to new federal green card rule

Posted at 6:38 PM, Aug 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-13 07:59:58-04

A new law that could deny Green Cards to immigrants using public assistance would make it harder for low-income legal immigrants to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Legal immigrants relying on food stamps, Medi-Cal, housing vouchers and other forms of public assistance could be denied a Green Card under this new rule.

It's part of the Trump Administration's effort to reform our nation's immigration system, but local attorneys say it's causing fear and confusion for many.

Under the new law, immigrants seeking permanent status must prove they are unlikely to use taxpayer-funded assistance.

Immigration attorney Amber Heffner says it favors the wealthy.

“A family of four now has to show that they make over $65,000 a year. That's a lot of money if you work in fast food, in the fields, kitchen or construction,” Heffner said.

A 1999 rule denied permanent citizenship to migrants dependent on cash benefits, but now the term "public charge" will encompass more than that.

Credit scores, medical history, and education could be reviewed.

Heffner says most of her clients do not rely on public assistance because of their legal status, but the new law has created widespread confusion.

“I think what's going to happen is that people are going to refuse all benefits because they are fearful,” Heffner said.

The U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services Director says immigrants could be turned away if they are found likely to become financial burdens.

"The benefit for taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens,” said Ken Cuccinelli, Acting Director of Citizenship & Immigration Services. “As legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant in the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state which is so expansive and expensive frankly."

It's a push to focus on immigrants' skills rather than the reunification of families.

Some agree, like one local immigrant from England who commented on KSBY’s Facebook post saying a green card was "given to me under assurance I would be self-sufficient…It's only fair in my opinion."

However, critics say the new law could keep people undocumented.

“My worry is that fewer people will try to get lawful permanent residency because of the uncertainty,” Heffner said.

The Trump Administration says they will continue to process citizenship papers.

"Last year, we swore in more American citizens than the four years before it and this year I expect to see similar numbers again,” Cuccinelli said. “So we have not at all laid off of, in the Trump Administration, processing properly legal immigration."

Kevin Lucado, a Deputy Director with San Luis Obispo Social Services, told KSBY over the phone that he met with other counties last week to talk about this rule. He says other counties shared they have already seen a decline in the renewal of public assistance services.

Lucado expects people on the Central Coast will also begin to lapse on their public assistance as the law develops.

He says the 800-page document requires further explanation and vetting.

There are exceptions to the rule, including military members, their spouses and children, as well as asylum seekers and refugees.

Pregnant women and children under the age of 21 also got a pass.

The new rule would take effect in October for new applicants and does not apply to U.S. citizens.