immigration

Immigrant New Yorkers in Limbo After Courts Halt ‘Public Charge’ Rule

New York Attorney General Letitia James secured an injunction to temporarily halt changes to the federal "public charge" rule.
New York Attorney General Letitia James secured an injunction to temporarily halt changes to the federal “public charge” rule. Photo: @NewYorkStateAG/Twitter

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Immigrants buoyed by court decisions pausing a Trump administration bid to penalize green card hopefuls now face wrenching uncertainty about what — if any — public assistance may be safe to pursue.

Federal judges in three states on Friday temporarily blocked changes to the so-called public charge rule, which would make getting permanent residency more difficult for immigrants deemed likely to seek public assistance.

Abbey Sussell, of the New York Immigration Coalition, said that confusion over the measure already has spurred some immigrant New Yorkers to drop benefits — even ones not specified in the new Department of Homeland Security policy.

“It’s still going to be really complex” to explain to immigrant communities what exactly the court rulings mean, given “a lot of damage that has been done,” Sussell said.

New York Attorney General Letitia James secured an injunction Friday temporarily blocking the federal rule changes, which were to have gone into effect Tuesday. Federal judges in California and Washington issued similar decisions.

Meanwhile, the State Department announced Friday that it’s pressing ahead with similar restrictions on green card and visa applicants filing from overseas.

Even after the rulings, city officials and immigration advocates found themselves scrambling to stem a tide of fear and uncertainty.

Families have needlessly dropped out of Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, pulled their children out of school lunch programs, and have avoided public hospitals over concerns of hurting their immigration prospects, Sussell said.

“The word that we want to get out there is ‘Continue your benefits,’” said Hasan Shafiqullah, attorney-in-charge at The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit. “If you’re concerned if it’s safe for you to stay on them or to enroll … then speak with somebody first.”

A Green Card Rush

The court injunctions provided immediate relief to one group of immigrants: those on the brink of filing their applications for permanent residency.

Many immigration law offices in New York City had rushed to complete green card applications for those potentially affected by the policy change, but now have some breathing room.

In addition to barring past public aid recipients, the rule would have made green card applicants present proof of income at least two-and-a-half times the federal poverty level.

That requirement is among the new 20-point “declaration of self-sufficiency” test designed to determine the likelihood of someone becoming a “public charge.”

The injunction issued in New York included a provision maintaining existing immigration practices while litigation is pending — meaning no green card seeker within the U.S. will be held to the new standard if they apply while the case is pending, said Shafiqullah.

“We’re just operating under the same rules that we’ve been under for over 100 years,” he said.

New Restrictions Overseas

More worrying for advocates are separate rules from the State Department — published one day before Friday’s injunctions — which, as of Tuesday, will affect some green card and visa applicants who live outside of the U.S.

The State Department rule could hinder applicants abroad who have family petitioning for them in the U.S. — all based on the same 20-point public charge test.

“I think the Department of State thing is really big,” said Jessica Young, an attorney at Make the Road New York, an immigration advocacy group. “And I think that’s not being discussed right now.”

Young noted the State Department rule could affect up to 13 million people.

“I think the big question is: Are the thousands of consular officials across the world trained on it?” she asked.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office is teaming with immigration advocates to help New Yorkers navigate a fast-changing legal landscape.

On Tuesday, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Legal Aid attorneys and several immigration advocacy groups, will be participating in a phone bank at Catholic Charities’ Manhattan office. Immigrants and their families can call 1-800-566-7636 for guidance.

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