New rules published by the Trump administration last week will make it harder for low-income immigrants to procure green cards. Local advocates join others in California who are concerned about the effect on communities here and across the nation. 

The rule would change the criteria for whether a person trying to enter the United States or otherwise change immigration status is likely to be a “public charge” and cost taxpayers money. While benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid were not previously part of the federal evaluation, these services will be included starting Oct. 15. 

“The new rule is a punishment,” said Belinda Arriaga, founder of Half Moon Bay-based Ayudando Latinos A Soñar. “It’s another attack on communities that are really vulnerable.”

Whether someone is likely to be a public charge is dependent on whether they will receive welfare or institutionalization. Public health care, nutrition and housing programs are not weighed as negative factors. 

Priya Alagiri, an immigration lawyer in San Mateo, said applicants can have a financial sponsor, which could help an application be approved. 

“Previously, that was enough,” she said. “... They’re going to look at the totality of circumstances.”

She’s referring to the many different factors that could affect a green card application, including if the applicant relies on food benefits, Medicaid, housing assistance, age, health, education and assets. Santa Clara and San Francisco counties, as well as the state, have filed lawsuits alleging the new definition is unlawfully expansive.  “Many things that the administration is doing now is just adding these bricks to this invisible wall, and this is yet another one,” Alagiri said. 

Arriaga, who works with members of the Latino community, said many immigrants rely on these services as they work labor-intensive jobs that, especially in the Bay Area, don’t pay enough to cover the cost of living.

“Food and shelter should be a human right,” she said. 

The rule does not consider benefits that family members receive, and it only applies to applications postmarked after the implementation date. 

Nevertheless, community advocates like Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur, and Joanne Rokosky, president of Coastside Immigration Action Group, said people are already withdrawing from benefits out of fear. 

“The intended effect has already taken effect,” Rokosky said. 

With limited resources for those seeking immigration legal advice on the Coastside, Mancera plans to bring in an immigration lawyer to explain the update. 

“It’s another blow on the poor, and I would imagine that people in our community are going to be affected,” Mancera said. “It seems like the wealthiest get some benefits or new tax law and then the poor just get more oppressed.”

Local food banks are worried about people disenrolling from CalFresh or not signing up.

“From our perspective, this is penalizing lawful immigrants for using benefits for which they are legally eligible,” said Tracy Weatherby, vice president of advocacy and strategy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. “… It seems incredibly counter-productive to us.” 

Weatherby said her organization would continue to encourage people to apply for the next two months but would need to evaluate each situation before making recommendations after the rule goes into effect. Weatherby also said some people won’t come to food banks because they believe they are affiliated with the government, which she stressed is not true

“If people need to disenroll themselves from CalFresh, it will probably lead to more people relying on food banks,” she said. “We would welcome them, of course, but it’s sad to see situations where people in need of nutritional help are being scared out of using the programs.”

Last year, the Half Moon Bay City Council adopted a resolution opposing the Trump Administration’s proposed change to the rule. 

“The proposed rule could potentially hurt many of Half Moon Bay’s foreign-born residents and their families,” read the city’s staff report from Nov. 20, 2018. “If adopted, this revision would undercut the city’s efforts to provide benefits and services that ensure the health and well-being of all its residents.” 

Councilwoman Deborah Penrose said in a statement to the Review this week, “This attempt to further impinge on the rights of the underprivileged under the guise of keeping the undesirable criminal element from benefiting from tax dollars that citizens pay is outrageous, inhumane and illegal.”

Mayor Harvey Rarback also spoke against the proposed public charge rule, adding, “It sucks. If anything could be done to stop it, the city would be on board.”

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