Rights groups say proposed public-charge rule change will adversely affect low-income families, people with disabilities.
The first thing Alfredo* bought for his parents when he started working was a refrigerator. He was still in Mexico, in the city of Mazatlan in Sinaloa, where he worked in a little store.
But he wanted a better life, so he moved on with his wife and child. First to the state of Sonora, later crossing the border to Arizona in 1993 on a US visitor’s visa.
In Arizona, Alfredo washed dishes in a restaurant for a year, a job he got through another migrant he had met.
Eventually, he found himself working as a handyman, plumber and landscaper throughout Tucson.
From the moment he started working, Alfredo sent money back to his parents. The money was for improvements to the house he grew up in, which had no plumbing nor electricity.
All those years in Tucson, Alfredo paid taxes using an International Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). He wanted to follow the rules of the new country he was living in, which he also believed would eventually help him become a US citizen.
Now, 26 years later, Alfredo finally received his green card, giving him the opportunity to travel back to his home country and his family for the first time since he left.
In five years, as the rules now dictate, he will also be able to become a US citizen.
But Alfredo considers himself lucky. He received his green card as the Trump administration announced a proposal that, if implemented, would have possibly blocked him from obtaining it, according to his immigration lawyer, Rachel Wilson.
‘Only money matters’
Under the proposed rule change, announced in September and officially published on Wednesday, immigration authorities could deny green cards, visas or even admission to immigrants who use or may use public assistance programs, including food stamps, non-emergency Medicaid, housing vouchers and other types of federal assistance.
Although immigrants must already prove they won’t be a “public charge”, the proposal details that the use or potential use of public assistance programmes may now work against their applications.
Alfredo and his wife did accept food stamps for their baby daughter 20 years ago.
“We got food stamps for her in the first years after she was born,” Alfredo told Al Jazeera, sitting in the office of his immigration lawyer. “Because we were just starting, this gave us that little extra to make ends meet.”
Because their daughter was a US citizen, they were eligible for food stamps as a household. The stamps were to buy eggs, milk and tortillas. As soon as Alfredo made enough money, she no longer went to collect the stamps.
Additionally, an individual’s English proficiency level may factor into the decision on his or her application. For Alfredo, this may have proved difficult as his English is limited to his work as a handyman.
It remains unclear if past use of food stamps or limited English proficiency would be deemed a “public charge” under the proposal, which lawyers said is part of the problem.
“The difficulty with this new rule is that it’s all very vague,” Wilson told Al Jazeera.
“We don’t know for sure if those food stamps would be a problem because the parents were only the ones picking them up. They were officially for the daughter. But their daughter was just born, so she couldn’t do that by herself,” Wilson said.
“What they clearly don’t take into account in the new rule is the 26 years of paying taxes. Under the new rule, these don’t count against the possibility that the applicant might have to make use of public assistance in the future.”
Advocates also fear the new proposal will adversely affect low-income individuals, as well as those with disabilities.
“This proposal says work and family don’t matter – only money matters,” the National Immigration Law Center said in a statement last month when the rule was first announced.
Rights groups warn that immigrants may forgo desperately needed public assistance out of fear of losing their eligibility for legal resident status.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research institute promoting accessibility of the food-stamp programme, worries specifically for pregnant women and young children.
It said in a September statement: “Children may lose access to benefits that, in their later years, could mean better health, higher educational achievement, more work, and greater earnings.”
The public-charge rule dates back the Immigration Act of 1882, which included a clause that allowed for denial of entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge.”
Immigrants had to prove they had at least $25 to be able to provide for themselves until they found a job.
Since then, its implementation has varied depending on the administration.
For example, the public-charge rule was enforced more strongly during the 1930s by President Herbert Hoover.
The current proposed rule would narrow the definition of public charge.
“This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement last month.
In the new rules, it’s also possible for immigration services to demand a public-charge bond of $10,000 or more if they decide a migrant might become a public charge.
“That bond is another problem,” Wilson told Al Jazeera. “There is only a minimum amount given, no maximum. So the official might as well ask for an amount no one is able to pay unless they are very rich.”
Wilson said she doesn’t understand why the government tries to exclude a certain part of the migrant population.
“The people who clean your room in a fancy hotel are immigrants; they are part of the fabric of our society. We need that labour here. When we start saying, ‘we want people from this country and not from that country’ … well, you will start to find a lot of ugliness underneath that.”
DHS stated that it receives seven million applications for permanent residency, immigration status and temporary work visa every year.
Since 2001, roughly one million people obtain green cards yearly. According to Pew Research Institute, the majority already live in the US.
USA Today reported that the proposed rule could affect more than 380,000 applicants each year.
Wilson believes that more than 50 percent of her clients could be affected by the new rules and as a result, won’t be able to apply for a green card any more.
“I think this is an incredibly unfair policy. To use this public-charge rule to exclude people as if they are not part of this society is abhorrent,” Wilson said.
The official version of the proposed rule was published on the Federal Register on Wednesday. The public has until December 10 to make comments and suggestions on the rule. Changes may be made before the rule is implemented. The rule changes are expected to go into effect at the beginning of next year.
So close to the November midterm elections, many say the proposal seems to be a way for the Trump administration to show how serious they are about closing the borders.
‘We’re not criminals’
Although Alfredo and his wife received their green cards, the couple still isn’t completely confident about their situation as of yet. They are now in their five-year probation period before they can become US citizens.
Due to the ever-uncertain changing immigration laws and regulations, Alfredo and his wife were advised by their lawyer not to use their real names when speaking to the media.
“That feels like something strange to do,” Alfredo said. “We are not criminals. We have nothing to hide; we just have no idea what will happen with this administration and to us if we come forward with our names.”
Wilson nodded and said: “Them having to talk about this anonymously just goes to show what we have become in the United States. Immigration has always existed on earth. We go where there is work; we go where there is safety.”
*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.
Jurriaan van Eerten
Eline van Nes
Originally published as US plans to make it harder for some people to get a green card