Hunger Free VT Urges Public Comment on Proposed Rule

Eve Dolkart shares how she and her husband, a Guatemalan citizen, were concerned he would be forced to leave the country if they sought government assistance. Photo: Joey Waldinger

A South Burlington advocacy group is working with statewide and national organizations to combat a proposal that would make it harder for immigrants receiving federal assistance to gain citizenship and lawful residency.

The proposal by the Trump administration seeks to expand the definition of who can be considered a “public charge” — an individual likely to become dependent on government assistance for food and other basic necessities. Non-citizens deemed a public charge are not allowed to enter the country or apply for a green card (permanent residency) according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The proposed rule change would affect immigrants seeking entry to the U.S. via temporary work visas, tourist or student visas, and legal residents applying for green cards. The proposed change would not be implemented retroactively and would exempt refugees, those granted asylum or temporary protected status, DACA recipients, and those granted humanitarian-based via recipients.

At a press conference Friday, Nov. 7, Hunger Free Vermont, an organization that aims to end malnutrition across the state, announced an initiative urging Vermonters to flood the Department of Homeland Security with a public comment in opposition to this proposed rule, with the goal of forcing the DHS to rewrite or overturn it entirely.

“The Department of Homeland Security is required to respond to every single unique comment…We can actually make a difference, you just have to let them know this is not American,” said Jessica Radbord, an Attorney at Vermont Legal Aid.

The public comment period is open until Dec. 10. The official online comment page can be found at: Click the “Comment now!” button on the top right part of the screen to go to the commenting tool. The entire proposed rule can be viewed at this link.

As the rule is currently written, the government primarily looks to whether an individual receives cash-based assistance programs, like Supplemental Security Income, to decide whether they might become a public charge. Under the proposed rule change, however, the government would consider non-cash assistance benefit programs, such as food stamps, subsidized housing, or non-emergency Medicaid, as reasons to consider someone a public charge, and therefore ineligible for citizenship and legal residency.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services per the agency’s website, the purpose of the proposed rule is to “better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States and applicants for adjustment of status to lawful permanent residents…are self-sufficient.”

A call to the ICIS Field Office in St. Albans for comment was not returned by press time.

Additionally, U.S. Department of Homeland Security policy states that, “Immigrants to the U.S. with secured employment should have the income and resources so as to not rely on public benefits.”

Even if the rule were to go into effect, asylees and refugees — which comprise a large chunk of Vermont’s immigrant population — would be exempt.

“I’ve worked at [Vermont] Legal Aid for eight years now,” Radbord said. “Not a single one of the people that I have helped over the course of time would actually be subject to this rule.”

Despite the limited legal scope of the proposed rule, Hunger Free Vermont maintains that the proposed rule has discouraged immigrants from receiving government assistance to which they are legally entitled. Also, although the rule has yet to be enacted, many immigrants across the state are misinformed about these details and as a result are afraid of accepting government help, said Anore Horton, Executive Director of Hunger Free Vermont.

“People don’t want to risk losing their opportunity to become American citizens,” Horton said. So, they’re going to pull themselves off of food assistance, they’re going to leave public housing, they’re going to stop taking their kids for medical care, because they’re afraid that they’ll be targeted.”

To better inform immigrants about what benefits they can receive without repercussions, Vermont Legal Aid and Hunger Free Vermont drafted a notice about such services when the organizations first heard of the proposed change. The notice was printed in multiple languages and distributed to food shelters and other gathering places across the state, Radbord said.

However, across much of the country, immigrants are still eschewing government programs for fear of threats to their citizenship or residency. Rebecca Bell, Vice President of the American Academy of Pediatrics Vermont Chapter, recently attended a pediatrics conference in Florida, where she spoke with doctors “already seeing families forego some services, even though this rule is not in effect,” she said.

At the Nov. 7 press conference, spokespeople for several prominent Vermont legislators made clear that the state’s government strongly opposes the proposed rule-change.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) considers the proposal “cruel” and “intended to further divide us as a nation,” said Erica Campbell, a spokesperson from his office.

Spokesperson Susan Sussman from the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the senator sees the proposal as “one of many ways that this administration is trying to hurt families and children”, and that Leahy on Oct. 9 joined 29 other Democratic senators in a letter urging DHS Secretary Kristin Nielsen to withdraw the proposal.

But Hunger Free Vermont’s Horton stressed that, as this is an administrative rule change, Congress has no influence over whether or not it passes.

“The only way that we can hope to stop this rule change is by flooding the public comment system with hundreds of thousands of Americans…and organizations standing up and saying ‘no’,” she said.

SOURCE: Joey Waldinger, Contributor

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