Homeland Security Seeks Comments on Immigration Policy Changes

The city of Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs hosts Citizenship Workshop at Seattle Center earlier this year. The Department of Homeland Security has proposed technical changes to immigration law that could prevent working-class immigrants from obtaining green cards. (Photo by Alabastro Photography, courtesy city of Seattle)

Amid a frenzy of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the wake of the migrant caravan and the midterm elections, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has quietly proposed two technical changes to immigration policy that would make it much more difficult for working class immigrants to get green cards and citizenship. Both proposals are currently posted to the Federal Register for public comment and, by law, all comments must be reviewed and taken into account before the regulation can become final.

On Monday, November 19 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Asian Counseling and Referral Service will host a community briefing and comment party to fight back against these two dangerous proposals, together with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and other community organizations. There will be food and drink, an introduction and remarks from Congressman Adam Smith, a brief presentation and dozens of laptops and paper comment templates available for attendees to write and submit unique comments to the Federal Register to express their opposition to these attacks on immigrant families.

“We’ve seen a lot of? anti-immigrant action from the federal government in the last two years, but these are some of the only proposals that are actually going through the federal rulemaking process,” said Sarah Sumadi, senior manager of the citizenship program at OneAmerica. “That means we have a real chance at stopping them.”

The first proposal would make it harder for low-income immigrants to prove eligibility for a fee waiver, which waives the $725 citizenship application fee and many other commonly used filing fees required for green card applications and dozens of other immigration statuses. The proposal seeks to impose a more limited proof-of-income documentation to approve a fee waiver, which would harm people with the lowest incomes — especially the elderly and disabled — who do not earn enough income to file tax returns. For those who do not file income tax returns, particularly the elderly and disabled, it will be difficult or impossible to prove they are eligible pricing the most vulnerable people out of immigration status and citizenship. (There are currently only 400 comments on the regulation so far, and the comment period closes November 27. For more information please see Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s blog post.)

The second proposal concerns “public charge” policy, which would make it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards unless they passed an income test. The public charge regulation currently has more than 50,000 public comments, and the comment period closes December 10.

“The Trump White House aims to damage the health and well-being of our communities,” said Jorge L. Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. “They want to scare immigrant families away from accessing the support they are legally qualified for.”

The concept of “public charge” has been a part of immigration law for more than 100 years. In order for many different kinds of immigrants to enter or get permanent status in the U.S., they have to prove they’re not likely to become a “public charge,” or primarily dependent on government cash assistance or institutionalized care to survive.

The Trump administration is seeking to radically reinterpret the regulation to deny green cards to people simply for having low incomes, no English proficiency, poor credit, large families or health conditions that make them likely to need any form of public assistance, such as health coverage through Medicaid.

Though neither proposal has become law yet, there is already widespread misinformation and a visible chilling effect in immigrant and refugee communities. If finalized, estimates show that 24 million people nationwide, including households with 9 million children, would decline crucial healthcare and food supports for which they’re eligible out of fear of jeopardizing their immigration status.

The Protecting Immigrant Families-Washington campaign formed this year to fight back against changes to public charge, and represents more than 55 agencies including health providers, faith communities, child and family services, and others.

Advocates say a large number of unique comments are the best way for communities to stop these proposals from becoming law. Regulations have been stopped by robust comment periods before. In 2017, Department of Labor introduced a regulation that would allow employers to keeping their employees tips, they received more than 200,000 comments in opposition. In response, Congress passed bipartisan legislation prohibiting tip theft by employers.

Anyone, regardless of immigration status, can make a comment online on both of these regulations. First and last name is required, but anyone can submit a comment on behalf of another person. Comments must be unique in content to avoid being automatically filtered out. To comment on the fee waiver regulation by Nov. 27, click here, and to comment on the public charge regulation by Dec. 10, click here.

Joseph Shoji Lachman is the Civic Engagement Program Manager at ACRS.

Editor’s note (11/17/18 at 9:48 a.m.): Edits were made to correct the cost of the citizenship application and to clarify the impact of the fee waiver proposal.