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Trump administration immigration policy harms lawful immigrants, discourages use of public benefits, amicus brief asserts

For Immediate Release
March 25, 2019

CONTACT: Ejaz Baluch, Jr., (410) 625-9409 x222, baluche@publicjustice.org

BALTIMORE – The Public Justice Center filed an amicus brief on Friday in support of a lawsuit filed by the City of Baltimore and their co-counsel Democracy Forward that challenges the State Department’s attempts to limit lawful immigration. In January 2018, the Trump administration vastly expanded who is considered likely to become a “public charge” and therefore can be denied a visa. In the brief, the PJC raises concerns about how the revised policy limits immigration, makes immigrants afraid to use public benefits, and affects the advice immigrant advocates give their clients. The Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition, CASA de Maryland (CASA), Catholic Charities of Baltimore, and the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance joined the PJC in filing the brief.

The update to public charge in the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual permits consular officials to consider a visa applicant’s use of any kind of public benefits, including services as basic as public education and vaccinations, as disqualifying. Since the change in policy, the number of denied visa applications has increased dramatically. In fiscal year 2018, the State Department initially denied over 13,000 immigrant visa applications on public charge grounds, four times as many refusals as the year before.

“Immigrants are vital members of the Baltimore community,” said Ejaz Baluch, Jr., attorney at the Public Justice Center. “The State Department should welcome immigrants’ contributions to society, rather than relying on anti-immigrant sentiment to shape policy.”

The PJC’s brief illuminates how the policy not only curtails immigration but also has a chilling effect on immigrants’ use of public benefits. Many immigrants living in Baltimore are avoiding participation in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), Medicaid, and city-run health care services out of fear of being considered a public charge. Immigrants fear that their use of public benefits could affect their ability to sponsor family members or adjust their immigration status.

“This is the first time in the past seven years that I’ve seen people voluntarily turn down benefits for which they’re eligible, including even private charitable ones” said Betty Symington, executive director of the Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance. “We’re concerned that this policy will both harm immigrant families’ well-being and impact public health when immigrants are afraid to participate in public benefits programs, such as nutrition assistance and medical referrals.”

The brief shares the stories of individuals affected by the change to the public charge rule. One immigrant recently came to a Baltimore-area nonprofit to request rental assistance. She entered the U.S. lawfully with a visa but overstayed the term of her visa. Her preteen child is a U.S. citizen who may be able to sponsor her for permanent residence upon reaching the age of 21. Her child also receives SNAP benefits. Nevertheless, she decided to refuse the rental assistance and all other forms of assistance because of the broad impact of the public charge policy change and the Department of Homeland Security Proposed Rule.

The amicus brief also points out that the State Department’s policy is affecting how immigrant advocates advise their clients. They must advise clients that the public charge rule change has made an already unpredictable and uncertain immigration process even more uncertain. The brief describes how one immigrant is experiencing this uncertainty as she seeks to become a lawful U.S. permanent resident. Because she originally entered the U.S. without inspection, she must return to her country of origin for consular processing. The public charge policy change, combined with the current anti-immigrant climate, have contributed to her fear about returning. If her family’s financial circumstances should change partway through consular processing, she could be considered likely to become a public charge, denied permanent resident status, and not allowed to rejoin her husband and children, who are all U.S. citizens.

“This policy forces our members to make an impossible choice, between accessing the public benefits their families need and risking their ability to potentially become a permanent resident of the United States in the future,” said Nicholas Katz, CASA’s Senior Manager of Legal Services. “Even for those who haven’t used public benefits, there is still the danger that they will be denied when they go through consular processing because they are too poor. This policy is discriminatory and contrary to the great history of immigration in our country.”  

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