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Immigrant advocates concerned with public charge rule

Boston City Hall
Boston City HallDavid L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file 2012

Advocates in Massachusetts are looking to ramp up efforts to protect immigrant families after a federal court ruling cleared the way for the Trump administration to limit immigration of people it believes will depend on government assistance.

At a City Hall teach-in Monday, the advocates said the court ruling will open the door for the administration to discriminate against classes of immigrants, such as those from poorer countries. The event, attended by dozens of community leaders, was organized as an effort to inform community members about the extent of the administration’s effort.

Welcoming everyone has been ”the foundation of our immigration system … and it is about to be decimated by this rule change,” said Marion Davis, of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, which helped organize the event.

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The new “public charge” rule, which the US Supreme Court allowed last week to go into effect pending further legal challenges, would impose a wealth test on applicants for green cards. That screening process would determine whether applicants would qualify for public benefits, now or in the future, and would weigh against their eligibility if they did.

A public charge is generally considered someone who is likely to become dependent on public assistance, though the new rule expands the scope of that review.

The rule, three years in the making, has raised concerns that the Trump administration is discriminating against certain classes of immigrants by building wealth into the screening process.

It has caused fear and confusion in some immigrant communities, leading people to unenroll from public programs that they or their children are entitled to, according to several community leaders who attended the teach-in. Lawful permanent residents who are looking to maintain their status or seek citizenship would not be affected by the rule, for instance, and yet many have asked about terminating benefits they may need, advocates said.

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“It’s much more about penalizing poverty, a lack of wealth, lack of income,” said Andrew Cohen, an attorney with Health Law Advocates, during the event.

The advocates also encouraged anyone seeking to apply for a green card to seek legal advice.

“The vast majority of noncitizens, the vast majority of immigrants, should keep their benefits,” Cohen said.

In a statement last week, the White House press secretary welcomed the Supreme Court ruling. The administration said the new rule will be rolled out by the Department of Homeland Security beginning Monday.

“This final rule will protect hardworking American taxpayers, safeguard welfare programs for truly needy Americans, reduce the federal deficit, and 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,” the statement said.

The public charge affects those seeking lawful permanent residency, mainly by applying through a family member’s status or through an employer. The new rule does not apply to those seeking status as refugees, or asylees, or similar petitions.

But opponents argue that those affected make up the historic core of the country’s immigrant community, and that applicants’ suitability should not be based on their wealth. The rule change also weighs an applicant’s ability to speak English, their age, and education level, amid other factors, in considering whether the applicant would likely depend on government benefits sometime in the future.

According to the advocates, applicants would have to make 250 percent of the federal poverty level — or $65,500 for a family of four — to receive a favorable score on the wealth test. More than half of the noncitizens in Massachusetts would not meet that threshold, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

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Marty Martinez,the city’s chief of health and human services, who hosted Monday’s teach-in, said advocates are concerned about the “bigger picture” effect the rule will have on Massachusetts’ immigrant communities.

“It’s sending a message that says, ‘you’re not welcome,’” Martinez said.

“Immigrants are the backbone of our country,” he said. “We want to be clear that people understand, that Boston is a city that welcomes you.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.