A woman walks in front of the Brooklyn offices of the Haitian American United for Progress

By Jonathan Greig

Haitian immigrants trying to get their green cards and other kinds of visas will face increased scrutiny after Trump administration-led changes to the “public charge” rule went into effect on February 24. 

New York City officials, lawyers and advocates spent the week getting the message out about the changes, which will give immigration officials more leeway to deny visas for an increased number of criteria, including anyone they believe will use certain government resources — making them a so-called “charge” on the public.

Despite the rule changes, politicians and legal experts have urged people not to avoid government services and contact attorneys if they have any questions about how their immigration status will be affected by the new rules.

Changes To The Process

Under the new rules, immigrants seeking green cards and visas can potentially be denied if they do not have an annual income that is 125% of the federal poverty line, do not speak fluent English, have any kind of debt, have had to file for bankruptcy in their home country, have medical issues, are under 18 or are older than 61. The federal poverty guideline for one person is $12,760, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and reaches $30,680 for a family of five.

Haitian immigrants can also be denied visas if they do not have health insurance, are not in school or if they have used certain government services for at least 12 months out of a 36 month period. 

Hasan Shafiqullah, an attorney with the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, spoke at a news conference organized by the City Of New York last Monday, explaining the public charge rule and speaking at length about how the changes will affect the process for many immigrants.

“The public charge rule is about who gets to come or stay in this country and become a permanent resident, a ‘green card’ holder. This rule, while somewhat innocuous on its face, is going to transform who gets to get a green card in this country,” said Shafiqullah.

“What this new rule does is completely transform the whole analysis in a couple different ways. An affidavit of support is not good enough anymore. What they’re looking at is whether you will need to be on any sort of welfare benefits for 12 months out of any 36 month period ever in the future. The way they count that year is if in a given month, you receive three benefits, let’s say cash assistance, food stamps and Medicaid, those count as three months of benefits, even though you received them in a single month. So you can get your 12 months out of 36 months very quickly.”

Shafiqullah added that now more benefits count against immigrants seeking green cards. For the first time in the country’s history, food stamps, also known as SNAP, count against any Haitian immigrant seeking a green card, in addition to federal housing subsidies like Section 8 and federal Medicaid. For the first time, your credit score will matter and those who don’t know what their score is will be grilled about it by immigration officials

According to Shafiqullah, the changes are intended to radically transform family-based immigration, which has been repeatedly targeted by President Trump’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller. 

“Stephen Miller was open about this. It will mostly mean people who are working age, healthy, English proficient, probably white, will get in. It’s going to change the basis of family-based immigration. This is the main way people get their status in this country,” Shafiqullah said.

New York immigration lawyer Emmanuel Depas explained that in addition to a number of changes, there will be a new form green card applicants will have to fill out that goes much deeper into someone’s financial history in their home country as well as in the United States.

Before these changes went into effect, many visa applicants could get a letter of support from someone in the United States vouching for them or vowing to help them financially, but that will no longer be enough.

“This administration has expanded the definition of public charge and made it more arbitrary in the sense that there’s no longer just an income requirement. Now, not only the sponsor but the immigrant themselves is subject to additional scrutiny. Now the immigrant has to complete an additional form called an i944, the Self-Sufficiency form where they have to discuss their employment history, ability, education, language, health and more,” Depas said in an interview, adding that the changes will force lawyers to do a lot more work.

“People are going to have to be more educated as to what their options are when it comes to applying for an adjustment of status in the United States or looking to extend your visa.”

During the news conference, Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Department of Social Services, reiterated that the changes will not have any effect on who is eligible for government benefits. There have been no changes to whose is entitled to food stamps, Medicaid or cash assistance. 

But he highlighted that even before the rule changes were instituted, the news about them was having a drastic effect on the number of immigrants using government services they are rightfully entitled to. 

The Trump administration has repeatedly leaked or promoted proposed changes, which have created a climate of fear and terror in immigrant communities along with daily news stories about ICE raids or arrests.

“This is sowing confusion. It is creating fear. As we said in the court papers, we looked at our food stamps and our SNAP caseload and we found that between January 2017 and January 2019, SNAP or food stamp cases by non-citizens had decreased by 15% compared to a decrease of just 1% by citizens,” Banks said. 

“The drop off rate among non-citizen headed households is 10 times the rate among citizen-headed households. Before the rule even went into effect, it created such fear and just the threat that there would be a rule change led to situations where people who are eligible for food stamps declined to receive them. That means that children and adults are going hungry. That means the economics from the community that benefits from the use of food stamps is not being provided.”

Haitian-American Political Leaders Respond

Haitian-American political leaders and activists have stepped up to provide resources to Haitian immigrants worried about the changes or confused about what the new regulations mean for their immigrations status. 

New York City Council Member Farah Louis urged all immigrants concerned about how this rule may or may not affect them to call the free, confidential ActionNYC hotline at 1-800-354-0365, or call 311 and say ‘Public Charge’ for accurate information and legal help.

Her 45th Council District is heavily comprised of immigrants, particularly people from Haiti. 

“No one should be penalized for their reliance on public assistance, particularly when their national origin is used to bar them from opportunities for advancement, Louis said. “ The systemic xenophobia and racial discrimination from the Trump Administration has villainized immigrants who now live in fear within the shadows of our community.”  

District Leader Josue Pierre, who is running for a seat on the City Council, made similar comments in an interview, highlighting that Haitians and Haitian-Americans have been a frequent target of the Trump administration. The rule changes, he said, had the intended purpose of significantly limiting the number of people who are able to immigrate to the United States.

Haitian immigrants should get informed about the changes through a lawyer and prepare their documentation, specifically financial documents, when trying to help family members join them in the United States.

Pierre added that the effort to limit immigration was disappointing because the vast majority of Haitian immigrants are hardworking people who come to the country and within a generation have children who become educated professionals and tax-paying citizens.

When it comes to what people can do right now, Pierre said there are a number of Haitian legal associations and lawyers willing to help immigrants with the visa process. This situation should also spur more Haitian-Americans, particularly those in crucial electoral states like Florida, to get more involved in the political process in order to get the right leaders in office to address issues like immigration. 

He also highlighted that regardless of immigration status, Haitian immigrants should participate in the 2020 Census so that the city and state of New York get the financial resources needed to provide for their communities. 

Francois Pierre-Louis Jr., professor of Political Science at Queens College, said the changes were offensive because so many Haitians are fleeing oppression and economic hardship with the hope that the United States would welcome them.

Many Haitian immigrants are working low wage jobs and often have to send money back to family members in Haiti, meaning the recent changes will force even more financial difficulty on people struggling to make ends meet, Pierre-Louis Jr. said. People will be forced to skip meals and will be more afraid to seek medical help in crisis situations, he added.

“It’s unfortunate that the administration is doing this to people. Most of these people are working, they’re paying taxes, they’re contributing to society. It’s not that they’re coming in and just depending on the government. Sometimes there might be some hardships, there might be some difficulties where they have to seek help, but they are working,” Pierre-Louis Jr. said. 

He urged Haitian immigrants to seek help from social service organizations, soup kitchens, food pantries and the Catholic Church. There are also Haitian medical associations and doctors who will treat people for reduced prices if need be, he said. 

Larger Ramifications

The changes went into effect after the Trump Administration won a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in January. The court reversed a decision made by New York’s 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that forced immigration officials to refrain from using the new criteria in their assessment of people seeking to become permanent residents. 

There are nearly 600,000 green card applications submitted every year and according to government statistics, about 400,000 will be affected by the new rule changes in one way or another. 

Dozens of advocates and lawyers have called the new rules a de-facto wealth tax for immigrants, essentially attempting to only allow wealthy people to immigrate to the United States. But Pierre highlighted that regardless of the government services they may use, Haitian immigrants are a vital part of the country.

“Even before their kids are educated professionals, Haitian immigrants are law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, who contribute to the culture and economic productivity of the United States,” Pierre said. 

We don’t come here with a million bucks. We don’t buy our right into this country. We earn it through our hard work.”

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