Thousands of Haitian immigrants in the United States may be barred from applying for permanent residency in the U.S. if they have received welfare and long-term health care from the government.

Flatbush Brooklyn – Home to one of the largest populations of Haitians in America. Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre.
Flatbush Brooklyn – Home to one of the largest populations of Haitians in America. Photo Credit: Garry Pierre-Pierre.

By Sam Bojarski

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to public charge rules, a term used by immigration officials to refer to a person dependent on government assistance, could impact thousands of Haitians, including Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and discourage them from seeking public assistance. Haitian-Americans, as well as legal advocacy groups, have voiced opposition to the proposal, which expands the definition of what it means to be a public charge. A comment period on the rule ends Dec. 10.

Who it affects

Current public charge rules prevent many individuals receiving large amounts of income assistance or long-term health care from obtaining permanent residency. But the new proposal would also exclude immigrants who receive nutritional assistance, housing subsidies and health benefits like Medicaid, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Thousands of Haitian immigrants in the United States may be barred from applying for permanent residency in the U.S. if they have received welfare and long-term health care from the government. The new rule,  could affect more than 600,000 Haitians, including TPS recipients.

Yola Moiso works as director of operations for Konbit Neg Lakay, a nonprofit that provides education and counseling for the Haitian community in Rockland County, New York. She said her organization typically advises immigrants not to seek assistance from the government. However, this isn’t always possible and public charge would really become an issue for mothers trying to get health care for their children.

“If they do get health insurance for that child, it may be when it’s time for them to become a legal resident, (and) they’re not going to be able to do so. Meanwhile the child needs to go to school, and no school will allow them to come in without the right immunizations, so it’s a tough place to be in,” said Moiso, a Haitian native who is now a U.S. citizen.

Moiso said that some Haitians in her county come to the U.S. on temporary visas but remain in the country after they expire, to seek a better life.

The DHS proposal would apply to those seeking to extend visas, as well as immigrants trying to obtain a new visa or become a permanent resident. But the federal government would also consider other circumstances like age, health and education level when granting a change in status.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the median household income for Haitian immigrants in the U.S. was $47,200 in 2015, lower than the overall foreign-born population. The share of immigrants with at least a bachelor’s degree was 19 percent, compared to 29 percent for other foreign-born residents.

That same year, 91 percent of Haitians that obtained green cards did so through family members. Most people who apply for green cards in this way would be subjected to public charge considerations, the Center for American Progress has reported.

The proposal, said Max Hadler, director of health policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, also includes a clear income test.

“If your income is below about $15,000 a year, it would be very difficult for you to obtain a green card, because the income itself, even if you’ve never been enrolled in any of these programs, would be counted as what’s called a heavily weighted negative factor,” said Hadler.

Some groups of immigrants are exempt from public charge consideration, but not TPS recipients, in many cases. In New York City alone, the mayor’s office counts about 5,400 Haitian TPS recipients, who participate in the labor force at significantly higher rates than the general population.

No one seeking to renew TPS status would need to pass a public charge test. However, “if they identify a way to apply for a green card, they would not be exempt,” Hadler said.

Refugees, asylees and those with humanitarian visas generally do not need to worry about public charge when applying for permanent residency. Haitian entrants, including those who settled in the U.S. under the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program (CHEP), would be included in this category, a representative from the New York City mayor’s office confirmed.

The implications

Since the rule is not part of immigration enforcement, no one will be forced to leave the country solely on the basis of public charge, and the rule would only apply when someone tries to renew their status or obtain a new one, said Hadler.

However, public charge “narrows, and for any number of individual people, cuts off a pathway to being able to maintain or obtain a status,” he added.

Hadler also said it could force people to choose between receiving crucial benefits like health coverage, and maintaining their immigration status.

Public charge would not inherently disqualify anyone from receiving public assistance, however. During a tele-town hall meeting on the evening of Dec. 5, Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, clarified some of the confusion with regard to benefit programs.

“This proposal would not change anyone’s eligibility for public benefits, and it does not impact your current use of public benefits. In fact, if enacted, the proposal is not retroactive, meaning if you need help now, you should not disenroll or choose not to enroll in the benefits that you or your family needs,” Mostofi said.

Natalie Burge, a staff attorney with the Caribbean Women’s Health Association said she has consulted with Caribbean nationals who have voiced concerns related to public charge. She has informed them that the rule does not apply to green card holders seeking citizenship or mothers filing green card applications for their children.

My greatest concern is that the proposed changes to the public charge rule have created fear and confusion among all immigrants, even those to whom the proposed changes do not apply,” Burge said.

During the town hall meeting, Mostofi emphasized that right now, public charge is only a proposal. She encouraged anyone with concerns, whether they live in New York City or not, to submit a public comment before the Dec. 10 deadline.

Even after this date, public charge faces an uncertain future. Hadler said it may take awhile for the federal government to review an estimated 150,000 public comments. If passed into law, the rule would not take effect immediately.

“The only time at which there might be a consequence for being enrolled in one of these (benefit) programs that would be newly included under the rule is after the rule has taken effect, and we are several months away from that, at the very least,” Hadler said.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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