Money talks: Getting a green card may come down to what you have in the bank

By Forest Wilson

You would need a pretty good ear to guess where Gregor Mieder is from. Perhaps 15 years in the United States has smoothed the edges of his accent. Or maybe a master’s degree in applied linguistics and working with immigrants has made his East Berlin intonation very subtle.

Mieder is currently the director of immigration services at Metropolitan State University of Denver, but points out that when he first immigrated to this country at the age of 21, he lacked a U.S. education — a situation that meant that for seven years, he worked whatever job he could get, including bike messenger, telemarketer and pizza maker.

The jobs were low-paying — so low the federal government would have considered him to be living in poverty. And had that been the case today, the U.S. government may never have granted him his green card — the photo identification card that means an immigrant is a  lawful permanent U.S. resident.

Under a Sept. 22 proposal by the Department of Homeland Security, immigrants applying for visas or green cards must show that they earn at least 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level — $15,175 for an individual in 2018 — and won’t be reliant on public benefits.

The rule change expands an existing “public charge test.”  The test will not be used for those seeking citizenship — immigrants who already are legal permanent residents — because the rule will not be applied retroactively.

Should the proposal be enacted, immigrants will be much more likely to be granted permanent residency if their household income is above 250 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, or $30,350 annually in 2018. If it is below 125 percent of the poverty level, the immigrant will not pass the public charge test and will be considered “inadmissible.” Currently, most immigrants can get around this requirement if they can find a U.S. citizen with an income above 125 percent poverty level to sponsor them, basically guaranteeing they will financially support the immigrant. The rule as it stands only considers the sponsor’s income. The proposal examines both immigrant’s and sponsor’s incomes and factors both together to determine approval. 

“I would not have been granted a green card under that rule because I made just around the Federal Poverty Level for many years,” Mieder said.

When Mieder was 24 he began community college, but continued working low-wage jobs until he was 27 or 28 and completed his schooling.

Under the current green card application system, immigration officials look at two things when determining whether someone might become a public charge: is he or she receiving government cash assistance, or is the person at risk of being placed in institutional care?

With the proposed change, immigration officials would also consider whether the person is using or might potentially use Medicare part D, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing assistance, and possibly the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Other factors in the test that someone is “likely at any time” to become a public charge are age, health, education, family status and whether the person received public benefits in the past, according to the DHS proposal. The proposal also outlines a process for immigrants who are rejected to pay a $10,000 immigration bond, which allows them to be exempted from the public charge test. The government taps into the bond if the immigrant begins using public programs, but the money would be returned to the person if he or she permanently leaves the United States or becomes a citizen.

“This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers,” Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement.

Immigration officials will have a lot of say in who may or may not be granted residency, say opponents of the proposal, including Madison Hardee, senior policy attorney for the Center for Law and Social Policy.

“Under the rule there are lots of things that can be counted against you, and very little that can help,” Hardee said.

The Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates more than 606,000 Coloradans live in a family with one or more noncitizens, and that 394,000 of those 606,000 make below 250 percent of the poverty level.  The number includes green card holders and some undocumented immigrants who could be affected because of a family member’s loss of income or status.

According to Elliot Goldbaum, CFI director of strategic communications, these numbers may also include some undocumented immigrants, but they closely represent the total number of people affected by this proposal, either directly themselves or through family.

The numbers, Goldbaum said, include those who may begin dis-enrolling from programs, despite being qualified, because they are afraid of losing immigration status for themselves or their families — what’s known as a “chilling effect.”

“We know in the past, when legislation like this is introduced, there are a lot of these unintended consequences where a number of other people who are in families with an immigrant lose coverage as well,” Emily Johnson, associate director of economic analysis for the Colorado Health Institute, said.

The DHS proposal acknowledges this effect, citing a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, after the passage of which enrollment in food stamps fell 54 percent among legal immigrants.

DHS estimates the chilling effect for this proposal will be much lower, judging that 2.5 percent of immigrants will dis-enroll from benefits for fear of losing or not being able to change their status.

An analysis by the Colorado Health Institute estimates 75,000 Coloradans — three-quarters of them U.S. citizens — will lose health insurance coverage as a consequence of the chilling effect. Johnson explains immigrants often un-enroll their children who are citizens, fearful of repercussions for themselves or other immigrant family members. CHI estimates that two-thirds of those losing coverage will be children.  

There are additional repercussions to this proposal, said Dr. Janine Young, a pediatrician and medical director of the Denver Health Refugee Clinic. Children and families will forego primary and preventative medical care, along with dropping food assistance. This worsens the problem of malnutrition that already exists among the immigrant communities she serves.

“They wait until they are very sick and then they overflow our emergency rooms, which are high-cost places that provide Band-Aid medicine that isn’t going to fix a chronic issue,” Young said.

DHS officials did not respond to request by The Colorado Independent for comments on the proposed rule change.

In Gregor Mieder’s corner office, he says that immigrants like himself come to this country to support themselves. As he recalls his days working odd jobs and making little money, he says most of the immigrants he has come in contact with have a similar story. His students work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families. He says they take pride in supporting themselves and don’t want to be a public charge.

The rate that citizens and noncitizens use public benefits is nearly equivalent at 20 percent of the population, according to a U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 Survey of Income and Program Participation.

“If you start tying income levels to immigration you’re kind of going away from what the U.S. has been for 400 years,” Mieder said.

Sarah McAfee, director of communications for the Center for Health Progress, addressed those who support the proposal and say immigrants should be able to support themselves if they want legal status.

“People come to this country for freedom and prosperity, not handouts, and they work hard to achieve a better life. These programs help families stay strong and productive, raise children who thrive, and help us live our values as a country,” she said in a statement.

Once the proposal is published in the Federal Register, there will be a 60-day comment period for the public and other government agencies. DHS makes the final call on whether the rule becomes law, effective 60 days later.

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