Joel Pfeffer: ‘Public charge’ proposal could thwart hopes & dreams |
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Joel Pfeffer: ‘Public charge’ proposal could thwart hopes & dreams

Honduran migrant Joel Mendez passes his eight-month-old son through a hole under the U.S. border wall to his partner, Yesenia Martinez, in Tijuana, Mexico, Dec. 7, 2018.

Before Ellis Island was a museum that hosted tourists and middle-school field trips, it was a gateway to America for thousands upon thousands of hopeful immigrants — and the site of intense question-and-answer sessions.

These early 1900s interviews included some fairly straightforward questions: What country are you from? What is your occupation? Others were more probing: Are you coming to America for a job? Where will you work? Immigrants’ health was also heavily scrutinized. The inquiries were meant to determine whether an applicant would be an active contributor or a burden to U.S. society. If the inspector felt an answer was inconclusive or suspicious, an immigrant could be detained and possibly deported. If not, welcome to the land of opportunity.

Since then, the majority of subjective immigration processes have been eliminated, replaced by a series of forms (primarily affidavits of support) positioned to focus on objective qualifiers. But a proposed change by the Trump administration would alter the way applicants are evaluated and could catapult us back to a time period when an immigrant could be denied based on the interviewer’s opinions and judgments.

The new rule redefines the test of whether an immigrant is a “public charge” to focus on whether an immigrant is more likely than not to become dependent on the U.S. government through the receipt of a public benefit (such as food stamps or Medicaid and therefore ineligible to receive permanent resident status (green card) or even a temporary visa. It also expands the test for public charge, giving more criteria for Department of Homeland Security officers to weigh.

Financial factors and benefits have been evaluated for years through analysis of affidavits of support, but in the more restrictive policy, interviewers will be able to deny a green card to anyone they believe, based on age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills, is likely to receive a public benefit.

The current administration has always emphasized it wants to focus on “merit-based” immigration, but the regulation appears to favor wealthier immigrants, mainly from western nations, and would decrease the number of lower-income immigrants or those with hardships, such as chronic illnesses. Federal courts saw it that way, too.

Just days before the new public charge rule was to take effect, several federal judges blocked the regulation. In one of the rulings, a judge declared the policy “repugnant to the American dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work.” The government is expected to appeal the rulings, however, and in my experience, this will not be the last we see of the rule.

The rule will add another complex layer to an immigration system that is bogged down with a backlog of applications and processing delays that have ramped up under the current administration. The rule could also harm hard-working immigrants with the potential to make a positive impact in our workforce, the same kind of people who would fit perfectly in a merit-based system.

Ellis Island wasn’t merely home to long lines — be they queues of tired immigrants or lines of questioning. It was home to the hopes and dreams of families looking for a better life, to be a part of a rich tapestry that would go on to make America the world’s dominant economy.

Many of those people who completed that long journey would be turned away by the new public charge rule. That notion should make our leaders pause. After all, if our efforts to remake a flawed immigration system are going so far as to discount those most willing to make a difference in this country, we may have gone too far.

Joel Pfeffer is an immigration attorney at Meyer, Unkovic & Scott in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected]

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