“They aren’t going to get you for using benefits. They are going to get you for being poor and black and brown,” said Amanda Lugg of African Services Committee, a multiservice human rights agency in Harlem.

NASHVILLE, TN – The Department of Homeland Security proposed a new Public Charge rule in 2018. More than a quarter million people told DHS they didn’t like it. They were a broad cross-section of Americans: immigrants, members of Congress, Mayors, business leaders, educators, healthcare providers, and many others. The Trump administration decided to ignore them all.

“On August 12 the Trump administration announced a rule that aims to prevent millions of families from accessing healthcare, housing, and nutrition support or risk denial or loss of permanent status in the US,” said Sara Feldman, a spokesperson for the National Immigration Law Center (NILC).

A person applying for a visa or green card can be denied if immigration officials determine they would become permanently dependent on public benefits to survive. Public charge has been a part of immigration law for at least a century but it has never included non-cash benefits like food stamps. Now it could.

Under the new rule if a person wants to change their visa or apply for a green card they can be denied if they use a public benefit for 12 months within a three-year period.

In the past, immigrants relied on their families to find food, shelter, and work. People who came here from other places would eventually bring their families over to join them. President Trump has criticized the family preference criteria used by what used to be called the INS but is now called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The NILC sued the Trump Administration August 15 and four other lawsuits have been filed to block the rule before it takes effect October 15.

“We’ve been preparing for this day since the beginning of the Trump administration and we’ve been fighting back in every way that we can,” said NILC’s Connie Choi. She is managing a national campaign with 400 groups in 40 states which oppose the new rule.

Choi said the rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The NILC filed for injunctive relief September 4 and if it is granted the USCIS cannot implement the new rule until the suit is settled and that could take months.

“This change would dramatically reshape our nation’s legal immigration system and basically institute a wealth test into our immigration system that is grounded in racial animus. Only a family of four making over $64,000 a year would be deemed fully safe from this rule and an estimated 26 million families and individuals will suffer the consequences,” Choi said.

She said that the rule discriminates against black, Asian, American Pacific Islanders, South Asians, and Latinx communities. Children and seniors in families with mixed immigration status will be most vulnerable under the expanded Public Charge rule.

According to the USCIS, cash benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or state and local programs of cash assistance to immigrants will count against them. Long term care under Medicaid will also be a strike. In the past, Congress has deliberately exempted non-cash programs from consideration by immigration authorities.

If the new rule takes effect, people who have the right to make use of these programs still can, but they could lose their immigration case and risk deportation. Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-CA) has sponsored a bill to block the funding for the new rule. It has 92 co-sponsors.

“Since taking office the Trump administration has made it its mission to spread fear and uncertainty among the millions of immigrants living in the U.S. whether banning Muslims from entering the country, ending the DACA (program) for dreamers, separating children from their parents at the border, or not allowing the temporary protective status program to continue, there continues to be a steady stream of anti-immigrant policy flowing out of the White House,” Chu said.

“It puts a price tag on entering America and it will make it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards or adjust their status if they utilize benefits,” she said. Chu said the expanded public charge rule actually works against the purpose of immigration policy which is to encourage people to become independent.

“Immigrants are actually less likely to use public benefits because they receive help from families, whether it’s free child care or startup loans when banks refuse. Allowing immigrant families to stay together has been key to their success here. But by keeping families apart Trump is making it harder on immigrants to succeed. This rule is just egregious and a blatant overreach of power by the Trump administration,” Chu said.

The new rule expands the definition of Public Charge to include non-cash assistance programs like Section 8 housing vouchers and Chu said 90% of the people impacted by the new rule are people of color.

Amanda Lugg is Director of Advocacy at the African Services Committee (ASC), a multiservice human rights agency in Harlem. Lugg said ASC helps about 6,000 newcomers each year from 120 countries.

Lugg said ASC staff counsel immigrants many of whom are afraid to use government benefits. She said some immigration attorneys tell their clients to disenroll from programs that might hurt their chances of getting a green card. But she said the new rule won’t affect people who are undocumented or out of status, meaning they have no immigration appeals pending.

Lugg said people with chronic disabilities who use Medicaid or the ACA are at serious risk if they disenroll. Lugg said the consequences of choosing to forego benefits would derail their efforts for optimum health and self-sufficiency.

“The best thing is to stay on your benefits, improve your situation, get healthy, work, find employment, and hopefully either this rule will have been stuck down by the courts or the pollical situation will have changed,” Lugg said.

“They aren’t going to get you for using benefits. They are going to get you for being poor and black and brown.”