US crackdown on immigrants who use public benefits takes effect

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US crackdown on immigrants who use public benefits takes effect

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

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PHOENIX, Arizona (AP) — Pastor Antonio Velasquez says that before the Donald Trump Administration announced a crackdown on immigrants using government social services, people lined up before sunrise outside a state office in a largely Latino Phoenix neighbourhood to sign up for food stamps and Medicaid.

No more.

“You had to arrive at 3 in the morning, and it might take you until the end of the day,” he said, pointing behind the office in the Maryvale neighbourhood to show how long the lines got.

But no one lined up one recent weekday morning, and there were just a handful of people inside.

With new rules taking effect Monday that disqualify more people from green cards if they use government benefits, droves of immigrants, including citizens and legal residents, have dropped social services they or their children may be entitled to out of fear they will be kicked out of the US, said Velazquez and other advocates.

“This will bring more poverty, more homeless, more illness,” said Velasquez, a well-known leader among Spanish-speaking immigrants in the Phoenix area.

Advocates around the US gathered Monday to discuss and criticise the policy.

Participants at a New York City round table said that in anticipation of the change, neighbourhoods with higher immigrant populations had seen enrolment declines in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. They also urged immigrants to get legal advice on how they may be affected.

In Boston, the Rev Dieufort Fleurissaint said some Haitian immigrants worry that accepting benefits could keep their relatives from coming to the US.

Bethany Li, of Greater Boston Legal Services, said Chinese families are passing on WIC benefits not covered by the new rules.

The guidelines that aim to determine whether immigrants seeking legal residency may become a government burden are part of the Trump Administration's broader effort to reduce immigration, particularly among poorer people.

The rules that critics say amount to a “wealth test” were set to take effect in October but were delayed by legal challenges alleging a violation of due process under the US Constitution. The Supreme Court last month cleared the way for the Trump Administration to move forward while the rules were litigated in the courts.

A 5-4 vote last Friday by the high court sided with the Trump Administration by lifting a last injunction covering just Illinois, giving White House Adviser Stephen Miller and other hardliners a resounding win in one of their boldest attempts to limit legal immigration.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a blistering dissent, criticising the Administration for quickly turning to the Supreme Court after facing losses in lower courts, and suggesting that her conservative colleagues handled the litigation inconsistently in their desire to give Trump a victory.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said last Saturday that the change will “re-establish the fundamental legal principle that newcomers to our society should be financially self-reliant and not dependent on the largess of United States taxpayers”.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy Homeland Security secretary, said Monday on Fox News Channel's Fox & Friends that the change is “not a moral judgement on individuals, it is an economic one”.

He said the Government expects “people seeking to be long-term immigrants here, and maybe join us as citizens, will be able to stand on their own two feet”. He said the rules were “a major priority for the president”.

Federal law already requires those seeking permanent residency or legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the US — a “public charge”, in government lingo. But the new rules include a wider range of programmes that could disqualify them, including using Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers.

The chilling effect spreading through immigrant communities recalls how millions of refugees dumped social services during the welfare changes of the 1990s, even though the legislation that prompted the cuts explicitly exempted them.

Nazanin Ash, Washington-based vice-president for global policy and advocacy for the non-profit International Rescue Committee, pointed to research showing some 37 per cent of refugees exempted from the Clinton-era changes in welfare benefits dropped food stamps they were entitled to.

Ash said the Trump Administration rules would likely cause similar hardships for immigrants who contribute to the American economy.

“To call them a burden on society is factually incorrect,” she said.

The non-profit Migration Policy Institute in Washington said in an August policy paper that it expects “a significant share” of the nearly 23 million non-citizens and US citizens in immigrant families who use public benefits will drop them.


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