Becoming a U.S. citizen has never been easy, but over the last three years, it has become increasingly difficult to navigate new rules and policies that seem to deliberately discourage people from naturalizing or becoming lawful permanent residents (LPRs).
For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)—the federal agency that administers immigration benefits—recently announced that people who sponsor a family member (and some employers) will have to provide detailed, notarized, bank account information if they want to bring someone to the U.S.
The agency has provided no justification for these new requirements—other than a bland statement that the additional information will make it easier for the agency to assess whether an immigrant is likely to become a public charge.
But the implications are far from bland. They are part of the insidious campaign by the Trump administration to exclude people from the U.S. based on income, and to penalize low income citizens and LPRs who want to, and are entitled to, reunite with their families.
It also represents an equally dangerous, and quieter, effort to turn USCIS away from its mission of supporting and welcoming immigrants to the U.S. The more the first succeeds, the more the latter is inevitable.
What is a “Public Charge”?
Like many policies in the immigration world, the finding that someone may become a “public charge“—someone primarily dependent on the government for one’s livelihood—is an obscure and dated provision of law that may keep someone from entering the United States.
The primary insurance against becoming a public charge is the support of a sponsor. U.S. citizens, for instance, may sponsor family members to immigrate—parents, spouses, minor and adult children, and brothers and sisters—but when they petition for an individual, they must also agree to ensure that the person will be financially supported if he or she can’t make it on their own.
Sponsors also provide information on their income and assets and a recent tax return. Between this agreement and a federal law that bars most immigrants from receiving public benefits for five years, the likelihood of becoming a public charge is extremely low.
As others have written in these pages, that has not stopped the Trump administration from trying to portray some immigrants and their families as deadbeats. Because the public charge myth fits within Trump’s broader political agenda to demonize immigrants, the administration pressed USCIS to revisit a Clinton era interpretation of public charge that interpreted the law narrowly, excluding many short-term benefits that someone may have received over the years, including Medicaid, SNAP or public housing.
The new public charge rule—which the Supreme Court recently allowed to go into effect—will discourage families from obtaining critical benefits, for fear that it will endanger their chances at LPR status or citizenship. Often, this means keeping U.S. citizen children from receiving food and medical benefits they need and are entitled to receive.
Difficulty is the Name of the Game
In addition, USCIS has heightened the requirements for the “affidavit of support”—the document it uses to establish the contract between the sponsor and the government. According to public benefit experts, the incidence of abuse in this area is low, but the mechanisms to obtain redress from a sponsor already exist if needed.
Thus, the new requirements are not only unnecessary, but overly intrusive and time-consuming. It’s hard to imagine how USCIS will use the bank account numbers.
Moreover, in an age of hacking and theft of personal information, it’s harder still to imagine why USCIS would require people to turn over even more sensitive information that could be stolen—and why the information must be notarized. A sponsor is agreeing to provide support for a family member, is already sharing tax returns and income information, and must swear under penalty of perjury that he or she is providing accurate information. To require more offers no benefit, simply making it more difficult and more intrusive for U.S. citizens and LPRs to bring their loved ones to this country.
And difficulty is the name of the game. Over the last three years, USCIS political leadership has turned the agency into an increasingly petty and narrow-minded bureaucracy: one where it has become routine to require two or even three rounds of submissions for many types of visa applications; one where people are encouraged to look for fraud in every transaction; and one where the word “customer” has been mercilessly excised from all documents.
A proposed fee increase would see the cost of naturalization applications skyrocket from $640 to $1170 and would, for the first time, charge a fee for persons seeking asylum. All the while, they’ve made it impossible for low-income immigrants to receive fee waivers for most applications.
Even the USCIS mission statement was changed in the Trump era, eliminating language acknowledging that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants.” Rather than serving the public, the Trump administration has tried at every step to make USCIS yet another agency seeking to block access to immigration.
It is important to draw a distinction between the institution that the Trump administration is seeking to create and the people who work at USCIS. As a former employee of both USCIS and DHS, I am well aware that there are thousands of good people who want to help others, who believe that we are a nation of immigrants, and who genuinely welcome newcomers to the country, understanding that immigration is not only part of our heritage, but one of America’s ongoing strengths. It’s soul-crushing for everyone involved to see those beliefs and so much talent wasted on rules designed to do nothing more than make it harder to immigrate.
Fortunately, there is still time to push back against these new sponsorship requirements, and in the process to remind the Trump administration that welcoming immigrants and supporting families is a good thing.
Public comments will be taken until May 11 and it’s easy to submit your opinion. By opposing these new requirements, each of us can add a voice to the chorus asking the government to get back to doing its real job.
For more information, visit the American Immigration Lawyers Association advocacy page, which provides easy ideas and links for submitting your opposition to unnecessary and invasive requirements for sponsoring family members.