In NJ, advocates worry about change in green card policy

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

While it fights illegal immigration at the southern border, the Trump administration this week also took on legal immigration, tightening enforcement of a rule that denies certain public benefits to those here legally who are seeking permanent residency, more commonly known as a green card.

It’s called the public charge rule, and its new incarnation would bar people from getting green cards if they utilize food stamps, Medicaid, or federal housing vouchers or if they are likely to use them for more than one year.

Government officials say the aim is to reserve green cards for immigrants who can pay their own way.

“Our rule generally prevents aliens who are likely to become a public charge from coming to the United States or remaining here and getting a green card,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Public charge is now defined in a way that insures the law is meaningfully enforced and that those who are subject to it are self-sufficient.”

The rule covers mixed-status families, where one spouse is a citizen and other is applying for a green card, as well as families where the children are citizens and the parents are seeking permanent residency.

Meanwhile, Wednesday evening, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal joined 12 other state attorneys general in filing a lawsuit to challenge the new rule, calling it a means test that’s inconsistent with the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Grewal argues the rule changes the meaning of “public charge” from someone who is primarily dependent on the government for support to someone who utilizes any of several government assistance programs.

“The Administration’s efforts to make immigration available only to the well-off are as unlawful as they are inhumane,” said Grewal.

The Migration Policy Institute, an advocacy group, calculates that 709,000 people in New Jersey will be affected when the rule change takes effect on Oct. 15.

In Newark, advocates at the American Friends Service Committee say the change in the rule is cruel.

“This will discourage immigrants from utilizing public benefit programs that they qualify for in fear of not being able to get permanent residency status and that basically is forcing them to choose between food, housing and a green card,” said Chia-Chia Wang, the organizing and advocacy director for the group’s Newark office.

AFSC staffers said that, while exasperated by the rule change, they are not really surprised.

“I think this is just part of this administration’s agenda of really wanting to limit immigration in this country,” said Legal Services Director Nancy Miller, “not recognizing this is a country founded by and built on immigrant success.”

The new rule is creating a climate of fear among green card applicants and their families, a social worker said.

“It’s going to affect a wide array of individuals that I interact with,” said Jonnelle Rodriguez, a social worker with AFSC. “I work with everywhere from children to senior immigrants. A lot of families that I work with access benefits,a lot of them are mixed status families also, and it’s going to affect them across the board.”

During an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin this week, Cuccinelli was asked about whether the change was at odds with the Emma Lazarus poem etched on the Statue of Liberty, which reads in part, “give me your tired, your poor.”

His response, saying that what the inscription really means is “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge” — has drawn sharp criticism.

“The United States is one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” said Wang. “If we cannot afford, who else can afford?”