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Coronavirus testing won’t count against immigrants trying to get green cards, feds say


Note: The Miami Herald and McClatchy news sites have lifted the paywall on our websites for this developing story, providing critical information to readers. To support vital reporting such as this, please consider a digital subscription.

When immigration officials rolled out their “public charge” rule last month, people who were sick were deemed a “burden” to the U.S. and their health conditions were counted against them when applying for a green card.

Late Friday, however, part of that changed— at least when it comes to coronavirus, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services announced. Any immigrant who gets tested or treated for the virus will not be negatively impacted.

“USCIS encourages all those, including aliens, with symptoms that resemble coronavirus (COVID-19) (fever, cough, shortness of breath) to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services,” the agency said in a statement. “Such treatment or preventive services will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future public charge analysis.”

The agency continued: “To address the possibility that some aliens impacted by COVID-19 may be hesitant to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services, USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination, nor as related to the public benefit condition applicable to certain nonimmigrants seeking an extension of stay or change of status, even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits, as defined in the rule (e.g. federally funded Medicaid).”

Fear among immigrant communities nationwide to get tested for the virus if symptoms developed has been rampant, advocates say. People in line for green card considerations have worried that if contracting the virus and seeking treatment for it would impact their chances of getting their permanent residency in the U.S.

“If people are afraid to go to a hospital or to respond to requests from public health officials, then they — and all of us — are at much greater risk,” said Amy Kapczynski, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union and a professor of law at Yale Law School. “We need to protect our communities by enabling everyone to seek care and to help in the response.”

The Trump administration’s “public charge” rule was officially implemented in late February. Under the new policy, low-income immigrants who are on public benefits— or will one day need them— will be denied a visa or green card, despite having entered the U.S. legally.

For example: A family of four would have to make twice as more money —$60,000— to be in the clear, compared to the government’s previous income threshold of about $32,000, according to USCIS.

Asylum-seekers, refugees, trafficking victims and victims of domestic violence are all exempt from the public-charge rule. Also exempt: individuals granted relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act and the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act.

Many public programs are not counted against green card applicants. For example, Medicaid for pregnant women or children under age 21, as well as Medicare Part D and school lunches.

Those at the greatest risk of being deemed a “public charge” are individuals seeking to adjust green cards status via a spouse or family petition including those under Temporary Protected Status.

Citizenship applications are not subject to the “public charge” regulation.

Though the process has always weighed factors such as income, education, health status and skills, under the new rule, USCIS will consider whether applicants have received public assistance for more than a year within the previous three years in order to determine if the applicant can gain legal status.

If the government foresees that a new applicant will one day need government assistance in order to survive, the application will be denied. Depending on the case, removal proceedings can follow.

Federal officials said the rule will “better ensure that aliens seeking to enter and remain in the United States — either temporarily or permanently — are self-sufficient and rely on their own capabilities and the resources of family members, sponsors, and private organizations rather than on public resources.”

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