ALBANY — The state Attorney General's office and several prominent New York community organizations are seeking to derail a federal rule that would shutdown the pathway to citizenship for immigrants relying on public benefit programs.
The proposed rule, detailed last month by the Trump administration, would empower the Department of Homeland Security to deny green cards and entry to the United States for those deemed likely to become "public charges," or financial burdens.
The policy move would also require immigrants to provide federal immigration officials with their tax returns and any proof of job history they can assemble as part of the review effort.
But critics of the rule say it is prompting some immigrants to abandon their quest for permanent residency in this country out of fear they could end up being rounded up and deported to their countries of origin.
"For families who have the right to bring a family member here, or are sponsoring someone (through the immigration process), the public charge rule targets them particularly," said Claudia Calhoon, the New York Immigration Coalition's senior director of immigration integration policy.
The rule is slated to become effective Oct. 15. But first it must survive legal challenges filed by a slew of states and several pro-immigration organizations in New York, including Catholic Charities Community Services, which runs food pantries and shelters and counsels domestic violence victims and addicts.
“We had hoped that our objections to this rule would have been heard by this administration," Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, director of Catholic Charities, said in a statement. "But as a leader in providing legal services to these communities we also understand that we must turn to the courts to protect these fundamental rights.”
Advocates for low-income people predict the use of welfare programs will decrease when the rule takes effect, citing the experiences across the country after federal welfare reform legislation took effect in 1996, under then President Bill Clinton.
But supporters of the proposed rule say it simply carries out the immigration agenda outlined by President Donald Trump when he launched his campaign for the White House four years ago.
"Part of fixing the immigration system is making sure fewer people are abusing it," said state Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda. An announced candidate for Congress, Ortt said, "We want people to come here who are going to be able to take care of themselves and stand on their own two feet."
When the rule becomes effective, the Immigration and Nationality Act would update the definition of "public charge" to include people who are receiving Medicaid benefits, food stamps and housing subsidies.
The reviews of those seeking citizenship would wrap in factors such as educational achievements, income and health.
State Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, argued that the rule will impair the ability of new immigrants to move out of poverty. She also suggested it shows the Trump administration favors "those who met their narrow ethnic, racial and economic criteria to gain a path to citizenship."
In announcing a lawsuit against the rule last month, James said, “Quite simply, under this rule, more children will go hungry, more families will go without medical care and more people will be living in the shadows and on the streets."
Thirteen other states had already mounted legal challenges to the public charge rule when New York, joined by Vermont and Connecticut, filed its case in federal court in Manhattan.
Federal officials, in defending the rule, note that it reinforces principles established during the Clinton administration, whose policies allowed the deportation of green card holders if they were deemed to be a "public charge."
At a White House press briefing in August, Ken Cucinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, suggested the rule underscores the importance of "the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility."
The new policy exempts those who have acquired green cards and have thus attained permanent resident status. Refugees, military veterans and those granted asylum will also not be impacted. Others exempted include Medicaid recipients under the age of 21.
Calhoon said some immigrants who have green cards and are at no risk of being deemed public charges are living in fear that they could be deported, due to confusion over the impacts of the rule.
Others are so concerned with the potential of facing deportation that they have stopped going for medical appointments, jeopardizing their health, she said.
"All of these families have to make tough decisons about whether to see a doctor in an emergency or forgo those things until they have a green card," Calhoon said.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org