A new rule by the Trump administration that will narrow the pathway to citizenship for many immigrants is causing “fear and confusion” in Maine, according to those who work with immigrants and refugees here.

The rule,  announced Monday, would count more types of public benefits toward consideration of whether immigrants seeking permanent residency and U.S. citizenship are more than 50 percent dependent on government support.

The new rule, which takes effect Oct. 15 and is expected to be challenged in court, does not apply to those seeking asylum or who have refugee status, said Julia Brown, an advocacy and outreach attorney with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland.

But Brown said the rule change, which has been in the works for over a year, is intentionally designed to discourage immigrants who have children or are poor, elderly or disabled from trying to emigrate to the U.S. The Portland City Council went on record in opposition to the rule last December, after the Trump administration first announced it. Portland is the hub of the state’s refugee community and has recently absorbed an influx of some 400 asylum seekers.

Brown noted that additional criteria in the rule add negative scores to those categories of immigrants, as well as those who don’t speak English, are under age 18 or over 61. They add positive scores for those seeking permanent residency who have incomes of at least 250 percent of the federal poverty level – or about $66,000 for a family of four.

She said her organization was already hearing from immigrants in Maine concerned that they should either cancel or not accept public benefits for fear it would jeopardize their ability to obtain permanent residency or a so-called “green card.”

Hannah DeAngelis, program director for Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities of Maine, said that organization was also hearing from concerned immigrants, even though the clients they serve all have refugee status.

“The other impact that we see is it just causes fear and confusion,” DeAngelis said.

A public charge test has been applied to immigrants for decades. However, the test was tightly focused on whether an applicant was likely to rely on a limited set of public benefits, including cash benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a Medicaid program that pays for long-term care and Supplemental Security Income.

In its new rule, the Trump administration would add more programs to the test, including Medicaid beyond long-term care for adults who are not pregnant, federal housing assistance and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said at a White House briefing that his agency wants to bring precision to an existing tenet of law that has lacked clear definition, the Washington Post reported.

“Through the public charge rule, President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America,” said Cuccinelli.

In an interview later with NPR, he said the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants to America should include a line that they be able to “stand on their own two feet,” the Post reported.

The rule, which was the subject of a 60-day public comment period, drew over 250,000 comments in opposition, Brown said.

“This is primarily an attack on family immigration, a core principle of our immigration laws,” Brown said. “The administration is saying that only wealthy, educated, English-speaking people should be able to immigrate through family.”

Immigrants and advocates have been aware of the proposed rule change for over a year, she said, noting it was already having its intended effect.

Alison Weiss, communications director for Maine Equal Justice, which advocates for the poor in Maine, said a recent Urban Institute study found that one in seven immigrants is opting out of benefit programs they are legally entitled to for fear they might jeopardize their status under the public charge rule.

“Generally it’s causing people to be confused and scared and it’s a shame that people are going to be deterred from seeking medical care and food for which they are legally qualified for,” Weiss said.

Lawsuits to block the rule are expected by national organizations that advocate for immigrants but also by a group of state attorneys general. New York Attorney General Letitia Jones said Monday she would sue to block the rule. It was unclear Tuesday whether Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey would also sue or join the New York suit. A message to Frey’s office went unanswered Tuesday.

Jackie Farwell, a spokeswoman for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, which provides some benefits to non-citizen residents in the state, said the department is looking carefully at the rule.

Farwell reiterated that the rule would not apply to asylum-seeking immigrants and those with refugee status and noted it would not be retroactively applied after its effective date, if it is allowed to move forward.

“The Maine Department of Health and Human Services is assessing the potential impact of this new policy, which could deter lawfully present immigrants who are eligible for public assistance from seeking benefits that support their health, nutrition, and well-being,” Farwell said in an email. “These benefits are available to all who are eligible, from new arrivals to Maine to lifelong residents, and are a critical part of lifting children and families out of poverty and helping them to step into the workforce, obtain skills training, and get the education necessary for future success.”

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