CAPITAL REGION — New Trump administration rules that could discourage legal immigrants from seeking public assistance or even publicly funded medical help will have wide impacts, according to those who work with immigrants in the Capital Region.
"It's very concerning, as with many of the actions the Trump administration has taken with immigration," said Terry Diggory of Saratoga Springs, co-coordinator of the Saratoga Immigration Coalition. "The concern has as much to do with the fear that is generated by the action as much as the action itself. It raises the general level of fear."
In the Capital Region, about 6.4 percent of the population -- tens of thousands of people -- were immigrant in 2014, according to a report issued by the state Comptroller's office in 2016. The percentages are larger in cities, with about 13.3 percent of immigrants in Schenectady's population. In the region, the recent immigrant population includes roughly equal percentages of Latinos, Europeans and Asians, the report found.
The rule, announced Monday in Washington, D.C., could let the government deny green cards -- permanent resident status -- to immigrants who are poor enough to need to use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance. While the administration's efforts to target illegal immigration get more attention, it is also seeking to restrict much legal immigration.
The new rule would go into effect Oct. 15, though court challenges that could delay that date are expected.
The Rev. Phil Grigsby, executive director of Schenectady Community Ministries, which operates the largest food pantry in Schenectady County, said he expects the planned restrictions to boost demand on the pantry, which supplies about 85 families a day.
"We deal with a fair number of people who are seeking legal status," Grigsby said. "It will not have an immediate effect, but it will have a gradual and very detrimental effect.... More people will be not eligible for food stamps or won't want to apply, so more people will come us. There will be a bigger burden on private charity, at a time when the Trump administration is cutting back on (tax breaks that support) private charity."
Federal law already requires those seeking green cards and legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the United States, or what’s called a “public charge,” but the new rules detail a broader range of programs that could disqualify them. The administration says immigrants seeking permanent residence should be self-sufficient.
The rule change targets people who entered the United States legally and are seeking permanent status. It’s part of a push to move the U.S. to a system that focuses on immigrants’ skills instead of emphasizing the reunification of families.
By broading the definition of "public charge" to include such benefits as food stamps and Section 8 housing assistance, the rule is likely to target many immigrants who are working productively, but hold low-wage jobs.
Under the rule, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will weigh an applicant's history of receiving public assistance, along with other factors such as education, household income and health to determine whether to grant legal status. Any immigrant who receives one or more public benefits for 12 months within any 36 month period could be denied a green card.
The rule does not apply to undocumented or illegal immigrants, who are not eligible for federal government benefits. The rule also does not apply to refugees or asylum seekers, pregnant women or children.
Fabrizia Rodriguez, an Amsterdam attorney who works on immigration issues, said the rule targets some of the most vulnerable immigrants -- people who may have been admitted to the country legally based on their being a victim of domestic violence or human trafficking, but who need to wait before they can apply for a green card.
"The group it's hurting are the people who have been approved (for entry), are here for some humanitarian reason, but they have to wait for a green card, and in the interim they may need assistance," Rodriguez said.
Obtaining a green card is an essential step along the way to applying for U.S. citizenship, which requires immigrants to have lived in the country for five years, she noted. "This backs that process up," she said.
She agreed that many immigrants may need public assistance when they arrive, but go on to provide a net benefit to society.
In Saratoga County, it is well-known that many of the backstretch employees at Saratoga Race Course are immigrants, but Diggory noted that immigrants also work in the county's restaurant and hotel industries, and on many of the region's farms.
Diggory said it will be important that people be educated about the new rule.
"People ought to make a decision out of knowledge rather than out of fear," he said.
He said people shouldn't be afraid to seek public assistance or Medicaid help out of fear it will undermine their green card application.
"Isn't it a benefit to the community as a whole if people are willing to seek medical help for themselves of their children?" he said.
Grigsby, too, said he disagrees with the policy, and considers it "un-American."
"What the administration is doing is basically out of sync with America and what America has always stood for," Grigsby said. "Most of our history is welcoming. We are a nation of immigrants."