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Local immigration advocates speak on SCOTUS 'public charge' ruling

The matter is still being argued in litigation. But on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow the Trump administration to impose new rules on immigrants and use of public benefits, rules which may adversely affect the permanent residency status of some. In Buffalo, some who serve "New Americans" say most are not affected by the change but add that many are missing out on deserved benefits out of fear their status would change.

A "public charge," by definition, is an individual who relies on government support for at least half of one's income. The Trump administration is seeking to expand public charge rules on immigrants by including use of public benefits such as food stamps, Medicaid or housing vouchers while screening individuals as potential public charges. Those deemed to be destined for public charge status could be denied a green card or entry into the US.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling with conservative justices in the majority, allowed the administration to enforce the new rules while the matter remains in lower courts. Monday's decision reverses a lower court's decision to suspend the new rules while litigation was in progress.

In Buffalo, attorney Karen Welch of Neighborhood Legal Services says most local immigrants are not affected by the ruling.

"The majority of people in Western New York probably came here for humanitarian reasons," she explained. "We have a very large refugee and asylee population. Those individuals will not be affected. They're exempt from the public charge provisions."

Those who would be affected by the administration's rules, Welch says, include immigrants who are currently in the greed card application process, sponsored by a family member or by a small business owned by family members. Others affected include individuals who do have a green card but have traveled outside the United States for more than 180 days or have traveled and have a criminal conviction.

Refugees and asylees, Welch says, are eligible for federal benefits. Many local refugees get help from the Immigrant and Refugee Assistance Program at Catholic Charities. Bill Sukaly, the program's director, says one of the problems with the Trump administration's policy toward immigration and public charge is that many of their clients fear they, too, are at risk of a status change.

"What's happened is we've had refugee clients say they don't want to reapply for benefits because they're afraid it's going to affect their status going forward," he said.

Welch agrees with the belief that many are already becoming confused about who is affected by the updated policy. She also expresses concern for immigrants who have come here through the green card system and are productive residents but may rely on some public assistance, especially housing.

"They're here. They're working," she said. "We know housing is really unaffordable to a lot of the working poor, so they do look for federal benefits to assist them, with rental assistance. Now, receipt of those would make them subject to public charge."

National-level critics of Monday's decision include the Council on Islamic-American Relations (CAIR). Its government affairs director, Robert McCaw, issued the following written statement late Monday: "The Supreme Court’s decision will further marginalize immigrant communities and will inevitably create a socioeconomic hierarchy in our immigration system. The Trump administration’s policy could quite literally kill people by making them too afraid to seek life-saving medical care, and the Supreme Court seems to agree such a cruel system is acceptable."

McCaw and CAIR are urging members of Congress to pass the No Federal Funds for Public Charge Act of 2019, which would block federal funding to Homeland Security for use in enforcing the updated public charge rules.

Welch, meanwhile, recommends immigrants - and those who employ or serve them - become informed on the new rules and who is actually affected.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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