Discussing the Impact of Public Charge on NWIRP Clients

Deniz and Miriam

On February 24th, the Trump Administration began implementing their sweeping changes to the public charge test. This cruel, radical shift to immigration policy will affect many of our clients, making it harder or in some cases impossible for some applicants to become legal permanent residents and live safely and securely with their families. Last week, NWIRP Communications Coordinator Raul Alvarez sat down with NWIRP Accredited Representatives Miriam Cervantes-Gomez and Deniz Uysal-Ferré from our Seattle Office’s Family Services Unit to discuss how this rule change has affected their clients and impacted their work. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Raul: Hey Miriam and Deniz, thank you so much for sitting down to speak with me today. I understand that the public charge test affects your clients who are applying to “adjust” their immigration status to that of a legal permanent resident (also known as a green card holder). Can you tell me how much work goes into one of these adjustment of status (AOS) applications that are required for someone to get their green card?

Miriam: It all depends on each case but an average AOS takes me about 20 hours.

Deniz: It’s a very involved process. As accredited representatives, we need to perform a lot of important tasks which can include translating documents, analyzing tax information, gathering necessary documents from clients, and filling out the necessary forms based on this information.

Miriam: We recently had a big push to file adjustments before February 24th for clients who might no longer qualify due to the new public charge rule. I was so impressed with how quickly we were able to file these adjustments in such a short period of time. In all of NWIRP’s offices, we worked around the clock to try and get these adjustment applications filed.

Raul: Do you have a particular case that stands out to you from this period?

Miriam: Definitely. It was the last case I filed in the evening on Friday, February 21st, the last business day before the rule-change. My client in this case is the mother of a severely disabled U.S. citizen daughter. I had been working with this client for a long time, and our plan was to have her apply for full guardianship of her daughter before the date of her daughter’s 21st birthday. Then, once her daughter was 21, she could serve as a petitioner for my client’s application for a green card. But now, with the deadline just one week after the daughter’s birthday we were in a very significant time-crunch.

I contacted the client and rescheduled the appointment for February 17th, the day of her daughter’s birthday. But to make matters more complicated, the client had not yet applied for guardianship. I had to talk to her several times to help her to schedule a court date for the guardianship hearing which she eventually did schedule… for February 17th at 10am. I was so worried that it was not going to be possible for her to get the guardianship approved on the same day but by a miracle, she did. So we had our appointment but then there was a new problem – she didn’t have some of the paperwork we needed for the application. We’d need her co-sponsor to come to the office to make up for the missing paperwork. So a few phone calls and a lot of stress later, we were able to get everything we needed just hours before the deadline.

It was the most important case I wanted to file and it was the last one. Without NWIRP’s assistance this client would be totally out of luck on the 24th. She has everything against her under the new rules. She only has a 3rd grade education. She doesn’t speak English. She hasn’t been able to work since the birth of her daughter. All of that would be held against her in the new test.

After I dropped off her adjustment packet that evening at UPS for shipment, my body shut down. I got physically sick. This was before the coronavirus outbreak or else I would have been even more scared. But my doctor said I was just exhausted. My body had been carrying so much pressure.

Raul: Can you talk a little bit more about how the new public charge rule is different from what it used to be before February 24th?

Deniz: The totality of circumstances they consider for public charge now are very different. Before, if you aren’t making enough income you could simply find a joint-sponsor, and if they were willing to sign the papers and they made enough money that’s all you needed, no other questions asked (at least with the adjustment of status). But now with the new rule the weight that is given to the joint sponsor is very low and they’re looking at other aspects of the intending immigrant’s life circumstances. It’s very hard for most of NWIRP’s clients who maybe they don’t have the level of formal education the government is looking for, or the language skills they are looking for, or the health they are looking for. We have a lot of clients who would like to apply for their elderly parents’ adjustment of status and who are now afraid and honestly stuck due to this very racist policy.

Raul: What other roadblocks do these new considerations create for you?

Deniz: Moving forward we have a lot more challenges. There’s a physical form that we now have to file with the adjustment of status applications called form I-944. If you take a look at the form, it’s just crazy. All the things that they are asking from the applicant are things that most of our clients will not be able to provide and it’s very scary. And not only on the adjustment of status level but at the consular processing level. So we are closely monitoring the clients who are going out for interviews outside of the U.S., whether that be clients who are already in their home countries who have never been here or those who did their paperwork in the U.S. and are going to the U.S. consulate for their interviews as to how that’s going to work out because there is another form that came out (form DS-5540, which needs to be used for applicants going through consular processing). This new form asks questions like, “have you ever received any public benefits on or after the 24th of February 2020.” We are hoping that if the U.S. citizen family members have received anything it won’t impact our clients but we never know for certain, which is the fear we have right now.

I have a client who is going to Ciudad Juarez later this month for their interview at the consulate in order to apply for a green card. We just met last week and they’re scrambling through all the paperwork they have to demonstrate that he’s not going to become a public charge. They have a letter from an employer of the U.S. citizen spouse saying that my client will be added to their health insurance when he immigrates to the United States, they got an appraisal on their house to show that they have a place to live, and we got a letter from his employer saying he will return to his job when he enters with his visa, and we’re still not sure it’s enough. And from an advocacy standpoint these are all additional steps that we didn’t do before and it puts a lot of panic and fear into the clients.

Raul: So it puts the panic on the clients. It makes filing an application for a green card harder and in some cases impossible. And it increases the work you’re doing because you have all the additional forms and documents you have to file. So it’s not only affecting the client community but also organizations like NWIRP that are providing support because it’s limiting our ability to help because it’s slowing everything down?

Deniz: Yes.

Miriam: We used to meet with our clients and get all the papers we need and would contact them only if we needed something additional from them. But now, clients are calling and calling or emailing and emailing because they are so worried. They’ll ask, “I heard this in the news, is this going to affect me?” People are just so afraid.

Deniz: And it’s very important for us to, you know, be on top of it and educate them and explain what the correct steps are. We give advice like, “yes you can listen to the news but don’t get all your information anecdotally from friends or whomever because everyone’s case is different.” It’s more important now than ever that we have community presentations. Malou [NWIRP’s Deputy Director] prepared a slideshow for community members and for social workers on these changes which is very helpful.

Raul: Are you worried that the fear might cause some community members to stop using benefits they need to take care of their families?

Miriam: Yes, this is already happening. One of my clients, a U.S. citizen in a mixed status marriage, is pregnant and she needs medical coupons because pregnancy is so expensive in this country. But as soon as she heard the news about public charge, she stopped using her coupons. She called me one day and asked if it would be okay if they took out a loan because we’re not able to afford their medical bills anymore. My client said they spent over $10,000 and had started to go into debt. And I was beside myself because she is a U.S. citizen! She is entitled to that help if she needs it. But she was afraid. She thought that by using the coupons she was going to negatively affect her husband’s immigration case.

I told her, “No, you have to do what is important for your household and now you’re in so much debt! Talk to a social worker and explain your condition and go back to medical care because you need it.” And she was crying, saying, “but is this going to affect my husband?” And I said “I don’t know if it’s going to affect his case but I know it’s going to affect him more if you file for bankruptcy. He’s already working three jobs.”

Deniz: One of the questions on the new public charge forms is if you’ve ever filed for bankruptcy.

Miriam: And they ask for the credit score and all that kind of stuff. That’s the saddest thing to see how it’s impacting the households financially because a lot of people need to take care of their children but they’re getting the wrong message, and I guess that’s the message the government wants them to get. To have them just go and cancel the benefits to which they are entitled.

Deniz: I have had so many U.S. citizen clients asking me if they should stop food stamps or getting state medical health insurance for their kids and I say no, they are U.S. citizens, they are exempt.

Miriam: The other thing that makes no sense with this new public charge test is when you become a legal permanent resident you have to wait five years to qualify to receive a public benefit. So it’s not like they’re going to take advantage of the system like the administration is alleging. It seems like this is just a way to keep immigrants from adjusting their status.

Raul: The only reason the barrier is there is to keep them from getting legal status?

Miriam: Maybe I’ve just learned to think bad thoughts but I just feel like all the government wants is to keep these people in the shadows and to get cheap labor.

Deniz: Since day one of this administration they’ve been attacking immigrants. From the Muslim Ban to separating families and keeping asylum seekers from entering the country, it just continues to get worse. But every day, we are here to fight back. And every day, we’re helping immigrants and their families any way that we can.

Miriam: Amen to that.