“It is repugnant to the American Dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upward mobility. Immigrants have always come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their posterity. With or without help, most succeed,” wrote Judge George B. Daniels in his decision blocking the Trump administration new public charge rules from taking effect.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Five federal judges have blocked the Trump administration’s new public charge rules and stopped the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) from making immigrants pass a wealth test to get green cards.

It’s the latest gambit by the Trump Administration to make life miserable for immigrants and their families. In his decision granting an injunction, Judge George Daniels of the Southern District of New York called it “a policy of exclusion in search of a justification”. 

Inside the U.S. the old rules will stay in effect until the legal cases move through the courts. The outcome could go either way but for now immigrant rights groups are celebrating.

“It is important to celebrate this moment and recognize the hundreds of thousands of people who took action to stop this deeply harmful policy from taking effect,” said Madison Allen of the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Allen said a quarter million people sent comments to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last year, setting a record, and laid the groundwork for the courts to grant injunctions earlier this month.

The stricter standards would allow USCIS to deny applications to people who receive public benefits like Section 8 housing, Medicaid, and food stamps. It could deny them for not speaking English fluently or being unemployed or not having income 250% above the federal poverty line. Age, serious health problems, and lack of health insurance would count against green card seekers. 

In a conference call last week advocates noted widespread fear and confusion in immigrant communities but stressed that many people applying for permanent status would not be affected by the new rules. Refugees, asylum seekers, crime victims, human trafficking victims, women who have been beaten, and juveniles who have been abused or neglected are exempt.

“The law is the same but the rules implementing the law are different,” said Allison Davenport, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Research Center (ILRC). She said the new rules would not be applied retroactively 

“People who have doubts about their situations should consult an expert especially before making any changes to their public benefits,” Davenport said. 

The text of immigration law about public charge applies in two scenarios: an application by visa or an application through a family member. In the interim while the new rules are being contested in court, different rules apply depending on where the application is processed.

“For individuals applying to enter the U.S. from abroad, consular officials (employed by the State Department) make the public charge determination. For individuals in the U.S. applying for a green card or applying to extend or change their non-immigrant status, the public charge determination is made by USCIS,” Allen said. 

In some cases, individuals in the U.S. are required to leave and go through consular processing to secure lawful permanent residence. Since last year, consulate officials have applied stricter standards in those cases. 

At least for now within the U.S. the only disqualifiers are long term care in a nursing home or hospital or receiving cash benefits like TANF or General Assistance. But most undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for cash benefits anyway. And benefits received by an applicant’s family member are not counted. 

Congress introduced those rules in 1999 but Public Charge has been part of immigration policy for more than a century. The purpose has always been to encourage self-sufficiency and deny legal status to people who would become permanently dependent on the government. 

Even so, Public Charge rules have stopped relatively few immigrants from resettling in the U.S.  America has always welcomed immigrants to the land of freedom and opportunity. Americans believe in that dream and we have always invited others who come here to believe in it, too. But the country is divided now and immigration policy will be a major issue in the 2020 elections.

 Some immigrants with legal claims have given up their hope of a better life in the U.S. and returned to their home countries. It is a Hobbesian choice because tens of thousands have fled their corrupt and violent home countries. Many are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, whose governments are supported by U.S. foreign aid to combat the crime syndicates and drug cartels that plague civil society.  

Neither the aid nor the President’s threats to cut it off if those countries don’t stop the mass migrations to the U.S. have had much impact. The tide of refugees fleeing northward has slowed but not stopped. Some of them have ended up working construction jobs in Davidson County.  

In Tennessee, there are 121,000 undocumented immigrants according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington. More than half, 74,000, come from Mexico. Guatemalans number 11,000; Hondurans, 8000; El Salvador, 5,000; India, 3,000. Sixty-five thousand live at or near the poverty level, 87,000 are uninsured, 30% own their own homes.

Last week Nashville Mayor John Cooper rescinded former Mayor David Briley’s executive order restricting Metro employees from helping federal immigration authorities make arrests or conduct investigations. 

Cooper appointed a ten-member task force to make recommendations in 60 days about how to report or respond to requests for assistance from federal agencies like ICE.  “This task force is intended to address that issue from the ground up, with guidance crafted by this diverse group of Nashville’s leading voices on immigration and local law enforcement policy,” Cooper said in a press release. 

This article was published in collaboration with Ethnic Media Services.