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Department of Homeland Security changes immigration law

By Mario Godoy

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For years, immigrants coming into the United States looking for legal status or citizenship have been required to show that they are mostly self-sufficient and will not rely on public services. The rationale behind this being that willing immigrants into the United States should be able to support themselves, with certain stipulations laid out in a person’s application.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, has redefined some of the key terms for immigrants applying for legal status. In their most recent updates to immigration policy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, and the DHS have worked together to redefine what a public charge is and what kinds of services should be considered when looking at a person’s likelihood of relying upon government programs.

For those against the new ruling, this has made it even more difficult for immigrants currently living in the United States and for those looking to apply for legal status, whether in the form of a green card or a visa.

Under the law, immigrants are responsible for ensuring and proving that they can support themselves and their families once permitted into the country. If they cannot do so independently, they must prove that they will receive help from family members, sponsors, or private organizations, rather than relying on public benefits. As of October 15, 2019, however, the definitions of public charge and public benefits changed and became much stricter. The law later became instated in late February of this year.

A public charge now refers to any individual that receives one or more public benefits for over 12 months in any 36-month period. Under this updated ground of inadmissibility, anyone who utilizes certain public housing programs, certain forms of Medicaid, and cash assistance programs may have their legal status denied. This rule also applies to immigrants already allowed in the country who are looking to update or reapply for legal status.

Under the new definition, if an immigrant receives two benefits in one month, it will count as two months. The term ‘public benefit’ now means any cash benefits to help with income maintenance. There are certain exceptions under the new law, such as humanitarian immigrants like refugees, but in the case for many immigrants, it will make life much more challenging.

Why the current administration is revising these definitions now is difficult to understand. While the public charge rule has always been a ground of inadmissibility, it became much more restrictive with the most recent revisions by USCIS and the DHS. For those against the new ruling, it appears that the updates were a way for the Trump administration to continue their crack down on immigration into the United States, both in its illegal and legal forms.

The law also allows USCIS discretionary authority when dealing with individuals that are found in violation of the law. The government agency has the discretion to allow immigrants in violation of the new law to post a public charge bond. That bond amount is set at $8,100. Critics of this law state that if an immigrant has already been deemed a public charge, they simply do not have the money to post that kind of bail.

Previously, USCIS has held public outreach programs trying to help anyone that was affected by the implementation of the new rule. That is little solace to some immigrants, who are now worried about their immigration status for using government programs or benefits when previously this type of aid was accessible to them.

Now, immigrants must navigate between which benefits they are permitted to access and which benefits or programs could jeopardize their legal status due to significant changes in the public charge rule, a task that is proving to be daunting to many across the country.

Mario Godoy is an immigration attorney with Godoy Law Office.

augusta free press
augusta free press