Listen to this article

CHAMPAIGN — A new rule that would allow immigration officials to take into account a potential immigrant’s likelihood of seeking public benefits didn’t take the University YMCA’s New American Welcome Center by surprise. It’s been preparing for it for a while.

The public charge rule announced Monday — a draft of which was in the center’s hands in March 2018 — would allow Department of Homeland Security Citizenship and Immigration Services agents to deny applicants green cards based on the likelihood that they will “become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”

But that’s not really news for center Director Gloria Yen, who has been working alongside state and national immigration organizations, such as Protect Immigrant Families, to make sure her staff is prepared. But with the impending October start to the new policy, they have just two months to help Champaign immigrants navigate “this additional obstacle.”

“What local, state and national experts are doing is reviewing the public charge rule and will update practical advisory information for us,” Yen said. “In the interim, we’re going to work with legal aid in Chicago to have an information session for stakeholders during our Welcoming Week.”

That week will kick off Sept. 13 and will include a training session at 10:30 a.m. Sept. 19 at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District where immigrant families can find out what has changed, how the new rule may pose an additional hurdle for some, and what it means for their ability to access different types of benefits.

Immigration officers must now consider factors like age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills when considering admission, DHS notes on its website.

If someone is using a program like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or general assistance such as that given out by Cunningham and Champaign townships, that could “lead to the determination that the individual is likely to become a public charge,” DHS said.

Other potential disqualifiers: non-cash benefits like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, food stamps, housing benefits, child care benefits, educational assistance like Head Start, and job training programs.

But Zoe Foote, the welcome center’s immigrant services coordinator, said most immigrant families don’t qualify for those benefits anyway.

“Essentially, this rule is instructing immigration officials to determine if a family will be a public charge; it’s instructing them to make a prediction with very limited information,” Foote said. “The big issue with the rule is that it’s very likely going to lead to what’s called the ‘chilling effect.’”

Foote said families and individuals receiving public benefits would likely withdraw “out of fear because of misinformation and lack of understanding of the rule.” She said that access to those benefits is exclusive for immigrants who qualify — usually, people in the process of becoming a citizen — and not those who are applying for a green card.

“They don’t qualify,” Foote said. “We’re talking about people who haven’t even used these benefits. Maybe some that have U.S. citizen children can have them, but that also should not affect the parents.”

Still, “the very language” of the rule, Foote said, is leading to a “climate of fear” where parents will likely un-enroll their children from a program they feel may be putting them at risk.

“Right now, because it’s fairly new and a lot of people don’t know about it, we haven’t had an onslaught of questions,” Foote said. “But people applying for citizenship are already voicing their concern that they won’t get citizenship.”

One woman Foote is working with, who is applying for a visa set aside for victims of crimes, told Foote she thought she wouldn’t be able to get the visa if immigration officials found her child was covered by insurance through Illinois’ All Kids program.

“There’s a lot of confusion and a lot of ‘hearing things,’” Foote said. “The way things are being reported on make it seem like the rule will net more people than it actually would.”

Welcome center staff await information and resources coming from national organizations, and will soon try to get in touch one-on-one with clients and combat misinformation.

“I would just say that the main thing is to make sure we’re as informed as possible,” Foote said. “We don’t want people to un-enroll from benefits that are keeping their families safe and healthy. There are a lot of resources to help people navigate this, and that’s what we’re going to do.”