A coalition of 32 cities led by New York and Chicago have come out in opposition to a Trump administration proposal that would link welfare and immigration benefits.
In the multi-city comment, representatives argued that the proposed rule from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) violates the Administrative Procedure Act, among other federal laws.
“We’re standing with New York and other cities in this comment letter because we believe this rule change is not only cruel, but illegal,” said District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine.
Under the rule, USCIS –– the agency that processes visas, permanent residency and naturalizations –– would take into account applicants’ use of welfare programs in deciding if they are eligible for immigration benefits.
The proposal regulates part of immigration law that allows consular officers or the attorney general to deny a visa or permanent residency to individuals who are “likely at any time to become a public charge.”
Current rules don’t allow federal officials to weigh past use of welfare programs when deciding whether to grant immigration benefits.
Opponents of the proposal say it is already scaring away foreign nationals who are otherwise eligible beneficiaries of social programs.
But the Trump administration says the rule would ensure that immigrants accepted into the country are self-sufficient.
“This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers,” she added.
And administration officials stressed that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will now review the more than 200,000 comments on the rule, so the proposed language could still be amended.
A number of immigration advocates have sought to delay enforcement of the proposal.
“There [is] real bipartisan blue state, red state, community opposition to these changes, and generally the administration hasn’t responded to that,” said Claudia Center, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s disability rights program.
“So the longer we can try to keep these rules from getting finalized, and the more we give the executive branch a chance to reconsider, the better,” she added.
Local governments have also chimed in, saying the proposed rule would burden their health-care systems in a number of ways, including keeping patients away from preventive care that in the long run is cheaper than emergency care.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s (D) Office of Immigrant Affairs filed a comment against the rule on those grounds, alleging the rule would impact, either directly or through a “chilling effect,” hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, including both citizen and non-citizen children of immigrants.
“This proposed rule, if finalized, could force working New Yorkers to choose between enrolling in public benefits they have a legal right to and staying in the country legally. The Trump administration’s hateful and racist rhetoric will not change who we are as a beacon to the world,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for reduced immigration, said he hasn’t “seen any hard evidence that we’ll end up spending more money if green card recipients don’t access public benefits.”
The proposed rule, explained Chmielenski, would allow USCIS to take into account past use of welfare programs in immigration applications, but not necessarily ban users of welfare programs from receiving immigration benefits.
“We’ve been operating under the current definition since the 1990s,” said Chmielenski, “and public benefits and how they’re issued have changed in a number of ways.”
Center, the ACLU representative, said one major concern is how USCIS case workers will gauge use of Medicaid for major disabilities.
People across the socioeconomic spectrum use Medicaid benefits to cover treatment and equipment that private insurers won’t cover, such as specialized wheelchairs.
“If you’re an immigrant family with a child with a severe disability, you are going to be using Medicaid even if you are middle income,” said Center.
And administration opponents don’t trust that USCIS workers won’t use the rule’s new powers to sweep away any and all immigration applicants who’ve used welfare programs.
“Oh please. You know the agenda of this administration, you know the purpose of doing this of the Trump administration has been very clear in his attitude, in his provisions and also his political rhetoric, creating false choices that somehow it’s the young immigrant children to blame for our nation’s problems. It’s wrong and it’s naive to believe otherwise,” said Ruiz.
Chmielenski said he hopes that, if the rule is enacted, USCIS agents will “use their best judgement” in enforcing it.
“It’s a lack of trust between the two sides. Obviously when there were other [directors] at USCIS, folks that tend to be on the immigration reduction side of the issue like ourselves, were maybe a little more skeptical,” said Chmielenski.
“It just makes sense that with the history that [USCIS Director] Francis Cissna has that they would be skeptical,” he added.
Cissna’s tenure at USCIS has put him at the crosshairs of many pro-immigrant and progressive advocacy groups, as he’s focused on tightening visa and immigration rules.
Still, USCIS has yet to review the comments and publish the final language.
Administration officials say the comments will be reviewed, but that current regulations do not take the law’s “public charge” language into effect.
“Until the rulemaking process is completed, we remain focused on faithfully implementing and carrying out a law that Congress first enacted more than 100 years ago in line with existing guidance. It’s incumbent upon the U.S. government to evaluate applications in a manner consistent with federal law, and the proposed public charge regulation is a necessary step to achieving that goal,” said USCIS spokesman Michael Bars.
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