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Tough new choice for immigrants: Quit food stamps or risk deportation

Trump policy starting Monday restricts Medicaid, housing assistance and other public benefits for those seeking residency.
Marisol Lopez, 42, sent in an application for a green card when she learned about new federal restrictions on public benefits for many immigrants. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ / TIMES | Times]

Click here to read this story in Spanish

TAMPA — As a single mother of six who cleans offices and homes, Marisol López believes she deserves the food stamps she has been receiving for the past five years.

She came to the United States illegally from Mexico 20 years ago, she said, but she has always paid her taxes, worked hard and tried to do her best.

Now, under a new federal immigration rule that takes effect Monday, food stamps may become a ticket to deportation for many immigrants.

Related: Family struggles to keep Tampa restaurant open after father deported

The rule, known as Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, sets a maximum level of public assistance that will make more people ineligible to remain in the United States legally.

It does not apply to those people who already are permanent residents or who apply for the status by Monday.

López, 42, is safe for now, but only because a friend told her about the coming change. She rushed in an application for permanent status — a green card, available to immigrants who live and work here and often a first step toward citizenship.

All six of her children were born in the United States and are citizens, but López never applied for a green card before.

“I did it as soon as I could just in case, because nobody knows how difficult it will be," she said. “I feel relieved because they sent me a confirmation letter a few days ago saying that everything is okay. I have an appointment for my fingerprints."

Still, she worries for those who will face deportation because they rely on public assistance to get by.

“Nobody has the same luck," she said. "What if you don’t have the money this month? It’s sad.”

The new “public charge” rule forces people to remain in poverty, said Ana Lamb, a leader with the League of United Latin American Citizens. They will forgo public assistance they may need because they fear it would jeopardize their immigration status, Lamb said.

More Hispanic immigrants are living in the United States without public assistance than with it, she said.

Civil rights activist Ana Lamb said the new federal immigration rule known as "public charge" forces people to remain in poverty. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ / TIMES | Times]

“Hispanics work very hard, pay their taxes and often do not receive what they should," she said. “It is a discriminatory policy that is made to install a new filter against legal immigrants.”

The government defends the rule as a move toward financial responsibility.

“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," Ken Cuccinelli, director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a news release.

Related: Venezuela means death, family says, so they struggle to build a life in Tampa

Court challenges delayed the original October start of the new rule. A 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Jan. 27 paved the way for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to start enforcement.

An August poll by Hill-Harris X found that 53 percent of registered voters nationwide believe immigrants who have used government aid should be able to qualify for a green card. Twenty-seven percent said they shouldn’t be able to qualify and 19 percent were unsure.

The new rule complicates efforts by many visa holders seeking to change their status and extend their stay in the United States.

Exemptions have been established for some. They include refugees, people granted asylum, Afghans and Iraqis who have special immigrant status, petitioners under the federal Violence Against Women Act, and those seeking certain T and U visas — issued to human trafficking victims and others to encourage cooperation with law enforcement.

The stricter new standards define immigrants as public charges if they receive one or two benefits for more than 12 months within any 36-month period. In its calculation, Homeland Security will only consider public benefits received directly by an applicant for permanent residency. Benefits given to other members of a household will not apply to the applicant.

The standards define public benefits as programs including food stamps, through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP; Supplemental Security Income or SSI; Medicaid, with certain exclusions; public housing assistance through the Housing Choice Voucher Program or Section 8 rental subsidies; Cash Assistance for Income Maintenance; and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director at Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., called the public charge rule a veiled attempt to curb legal immigration.

Brooke advised anyone seeking a green card to consult an immigration attorney before deciding to step away from public benefits.

“This new rule will make many families face an impossible dilemma," Brooke said.

“Use public benefits that are essential to their families’ health and safety, even though doing so jeopardizes their ability to obtain permanent legal residency, or risk their families’ well-being in the hopes of eventually moving forward with the process of getting a green card.”

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