Amanda Lugg is the Director of Advocacy at African Services Committee, a community-based human rights organization in New York City that provides health, housing, legal and social support services to over 10,000 immigrants each year.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — First it was the Muslim travel ban, then it was the children separation policy, and now the President wants to punish immigrants living in the U.S. legally.

“The Trump administration is trying to change the rules for immigrants who have waited years to get their green cards or join their families in the U.S,” said Sara Feldman, Project Director with the Legal Immigration Resource Center in California.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a plan last week to expand the list of public programs the government would consider in deciding some immigration applications. 

In the past, a “public charge” test was based on age, health, income, and education for a person who was likely to become primarily dependent on the government for their subsistence.

The new rules would find someone to be a “public charge” who is living in Section 8 housing or getting healthcare through Medicaid and DHS could deny their residency application. 

“The new rules expand the definition of public charge to immigrants who receive one or more public benefits,“ said Wendy Cervantes, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.   

The new rules would impact 2.3 million of the 4 million legal non-citizens admitted to the U.S. in the last five years, according to the Migration Policy Institute. More than half of legal immigrants could be at risk of a public charge determination while just 3 percent are now.

Under the new rules, cash assistance could trigger a “public charge”. So would SSI benefits, long term care at government expense, food stamps, or non-emergency medical aid, or prescription medications under Medicare Part D. 

“The rule also creates a more complex set of factors that need to be weighed when determining who is a public charge with negative factors including being under the age of 18 or over 65, limited English proficiency, a medical condition, and so on,” said Cervantes.

She said the administration has enormous discretion to deny admission or green cards to anybody below 250 percent of the poverty line.

“This means that a family of four would need to make $63,000 per year to avoid scrutiny under the rule and one that 40 percent of U.S.-born citizens would be unable to meet,” Cervantes said.

Nothing will change for the next 60 days during the public comment period. The DHS must review all the comments before it finalizes the new rules and then must wait another 60 days before putting them into effect. Exactly what they will be and how broadly they will be applied is unknown at this time but immigrants and advocates are really worried. The new rules could affect millions of immigrants and their families.

For example, an immigrant who has a job and lives in Section 8 housing, and who has applied for a green card, and who intends to bring his family here could be denied permanent residency even though he is legally entitled to housing assistance now. The same is true of Medicaid recipients who have applied for green cards.

Advocates who work with immigrant communities around the country say the new rules are a backdoor to ending the current family reunification policy that gives priority to green card holders who want to bring their families to live with them in the U.S. The Trump administration wants to keep them out although the President used those same rules to legalize the status of his in-laws. 

Advocates are telling their communities to get legal advice. A list of free or low-cost immigration lawyers are available at

“This is America,” says Amanda Lugg, an advocate with the African Services Committee in New York.

“Here in NY we like to have a physical reminder of the promises of this country every day from the words in-scripted bold and clear on the lady. This rule isn’t from the American rule book. The rule is saying we welcome you if you are wealthy but if you’re tired, poor, and sick, we don’t want you,” she said.

Lugg works with African immigrants some of whom are HIV positive. But she said one man decided to wait until he got really sick before taking his retroviral meds because he was so afraid it would get back to the DHS that he is getting medical care through a New York program called “End the Epidemic Initiative”. 

“Many individuals living with chronic health conditions will be asked to choose between their own health and welfare and their legal right to reunification,” Lugg said.

She called the new rules a de facto ban on HIV positive individuals and a backdoor reinstatement of the HIV ban that activists managed to overturn in 2010.

“It paints people with chronic but manageable health conditions as undesirable and it goes against the very essence of what this country stands for,” Lugg said.

“How you live your life and contribute to the community should be what defines you not how you look and how much money you make.”