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By Colin A. Young

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 27, 2018.....As the federal government seeks a rule change that would restrict the ability of immigrants to obtain green cards if they receive public benefits, advocates for people with disabilities have joined the governor, immigrant rights groups and others in an attempt to stop what they view as a discriminatory policy.

The Department of Homeland Security announced in September a proposal that would expand the definition of a "public charge," a person who can be denied a green card because they are dependent on government benefits.

Under the new rule, the government will consider the likelihood that a person will ever receive a series of public benefits -- including the supplemental nutrition assistance program, Section 8 housing choice vouchers and project-based rental assistance, public housing, "institutionalization for long-term care at government expense," Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, and Medicaid. Currently, an immigrant can be deemed a public charge if the government is expected to be the person's primary source of support.

Gov. Charlie Baker said in September his administration would "formally oppose" the federal rule change -- which is subject to a public comment period through Dec. 10 -- and said his administration "believes this proposed rule change would result in individuals not accessing basic needs like food assistance or medical care for them or their family." Several Massachusetts immigrant and health care advocacy groups condemned the proposed rule.

Homeland Security said the primary benefit of its proposed rule change "would be to help ensure that aliens who apply for admission to the United States, seek extension of stay or change of status, or apply for adjustment of status are self-sufficient, i.e. do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor, and private organizations."

Disability advocates have also joined the chorus of Bay State opposition to the rule change, arguing the proposed federal rule would directly discriminate against people with disabilities or chronic health conditions.

"In addition to benefits, the rule looks at a person's health to decide if they will become a public charge. If someone has certain medical conditions, that counts against them. If someone doesn't have a medical condition or a disability, the rule says that is a 'positive factor,'" The Arc wrote in an advisory to supporters. "In other words, the proposed rule would exclude people with disabilities simply because they have a disability."

The federal government, though, said its proposed rule does not discriminate against people with disabilities and that a disability alone would not be a reason to deny an immigrant a green card.

"Ultimately, DHS has determined that considering, as part of the health factor, an applicant's disability diagnosis that, in the context of the alien's individual circumstances, affects his or her ability to work, attend school, or otherwise care for him or herself, is not inconsistent with federal statutes and regulations with respect to discrimination, as the alien's disability is treated just as any other medical condition that affects an alien's likelihood, in the totality of the circumstances, of becoming a public charge," the federal department wrote in the proposed rule change. "Under the totality of the circumstances framework, an alien with a disability is not being treated differently, or singled out, and the disability itself would not be the sole basis for an inadmissibility finding."

Opposing the rule change in Massachusetts as part of the national Protecting Immigrant Families campaign are the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, Health Care for All and Health Law Advocates. The Massachusetts Medical Society said it "stands firmly in opposition and will continue to advocate doggedly to make certain it is not implemented."

"To be clear, no person living in the United States should ever have to defer medical treatment for fear that making use of safety net health care programs will negatively impact their immigration status or, worse yet, put in jeopardy their dreams and path to citizenship," MMS President Dr. Alain Chaoui said. "It would devastate me to learn that one of my patients did not receive care for no reason other than they were too scared to seek it."

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said that as many as 500,000 people in Massachusetts could withdraw from federal benefit programs "out of fear or confusion about this rule" and said about 160,000 of the potentially affected individuals are children.

"The proposal has not yet gone into effect, but we are already hearing reports of people withdrawing from benefits that they need," said Nancy Wagman, director of Kids Count in Massachusetts and the author of a MassBudget-funded report on the potential impacts of the rule change.

Jo Comerford, who was elected in November to the Massachusetts Senate from Northampton, also came out in opposition to the federal rule change and submitted a formal letter of opposition to the Department of Homeland Security.

"This rule would punish individuals and families who are already struggling with basic human needs -- forcing them to consider forgoing a much broader range of public benefits rather than risk their immigration status," the senator-elect wrote earlier this month. "Its potentially widespread chilling effect on public benefit access is terribly short sighted. Sound analysis of good public policy proves again and again that intervening effectively in a moment of need with basic human services capable of lifting a person and/or family out of struggle is the most fiscally and socially effective way to deal directly with a problem and prevent a crisis situation."

There would be five factors under the proposed rule that would "generally weigh heavily in favor of a finding that an alien is likely to become a public charge," according to DHS. Those include that the person is not a full-time student or employed, that the applicant receives, has received or is approved to receive any of the specified benefits, that the applicant was previously found inadmissible and if the applicant "has been diagnosed with a medical condition that is likely to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization or that will interfere with the alien's ability to provide for him- or herself."

The proposed rule would look favorably upon an applicant who either is employed with an annual income of at least 250 percent of the federal poverty line or has assets or at least 250 percent of the federal poverty limit.

An analysis by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute found that of the roughly 940,000 people issued a green card in fiscal year 2017, about 650,000 or 69 percent would have been at risk of denial under the new rule for having at least one negative factor working against them. Of these 650,000 people, about 400,000 or 60 percent had at least two negative factors against them, MPI found.

About 370,000 people or 39 percent of those who received a green card in fiscal 2017 would have met the new rule's heavily-weighed positive factor of having an income of at least 250 percent of the poverty level, MPI said.


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