WORTHINGTON — In the face of proposed changes to the "public charge rule" that helps determine immigration eligibility, Worthington immigrant advocates hosted an information session Thursday to explain how the proposal is affecting local immigrant communities and the potential repercussions if passed.

Julio Zelaya, a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that "this is a really important conversation to have," as he has already begun to see the proposed rule change create fear among local families. It's essential, he added, for immigrant communities and people who serve them to understand the rule.

Joyce Bennett, an immigration attorney from the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, explained to community members that the public charge rule is a test of whether a proposed immigrant, visa holder or green card recipient needs — or will need — government assistance for basic needs. Anyone who fails the public charge test is denied their request.

As currently written, the public charge rule only considers the Minnesota Family Investment Program, Supplemental Security Income, general assistance and medical assistance for long-term care as government benefits that could cause an applicant to fail the test. The proposed rule change would add Medicaid (with some exceptions), SNAP and housing assistance to the benefits that would be included in the test.

When the rule change was first announced, it created widespread panic, Bennett explained. Although the change was supposed to be effective Oct. 15, a number of federal lawsuits blocked its efficacy.

Though the rule change is being challenged in court, Zelaya said he has worked with immigrants who are reluctant to use any government services out of fear that they may be disqualified for green cards as a result. Increasing community understanding of what counts against immigrants according to the public charge rule may alleviate some of that fear, he said.

Bennett clarified that the public charge rule only applies to immigrants coming from consulates abroad, green card applicants and green card holders who have left the U.S. for 180 days and are trying to return.

If the proposed rule change is upheld, Bennett said, "many individuals will not get access to immigration benefits." Like Zelaya, she has already seen qualified people un-enroll from benefits out of fear.

"(The rule change) aims to limit immigration, and it leads to families being separated," Bennett added.

She explained that the new rule would include more factors, such as English proficiency, education level and financial status — a move that prioritizes wealthy immigrants, she noted.

Additionally, the new rule, if allowed, will designate the following individual characteristics as positive (meaning, a person is less likely to need government assistance):

  • age between 18 and 61
  • perfect physical health
  • income at or above 250% of the federal poverty level
  • English fluency
  • higher education and/or skills certification
  • private, non-subsidized health insurance

Other factors will be noted as negative:

  • age under 18 or above 61
  • medical condition that may affect ability to work or study
  • income below 125% of the federal poverty level
  • not proficient in English
  • no high school diploma or equivalent
  • use of some public benefits

Consideration of the stated applications will be examined as a total balance of positive and negative factors. However, Bennett pointed out that the rule change does not provide guidelines about how to weigh the factors, so approval of immigration benefits would be subject to the discretion of immigration officers.

While the new rule goes through the court process, both Zelaya and Bennett encourage community members to help people understand which benefits are safe to use and which are not. For case-specific questions, Bennett provided a hotline number of 1-800-292-4150, which operates from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.