“Public Charge” Rule and Proposed Refugee Cuts Would Cause Steep Drops in Legal Immigration to U.S.

UPDATE  (Oct. 15, 2019):

On October 11, 2019, in advance of the October 15, 2019 effective date of the  Public Charge Rule, discussed in the post below,  a federal district court in New York issued a nationwide injunction blocking the rule from taking effect while it is challenged in the courts.  As of October 15th, four other federal district courts in California, Illinois, Maryland, and Washington had also issued injunctions to block implementation of the rule.   (Maine is one of the state plaintiffs in the California case).  Also on October 11, 2019, to align with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Public Charge Rule, the Department of State issued an interim final rule  applicable to individuals applying for visas at U.S. consulates abroad.  While the court injunctions apply only to DHS’s rule, on October 15th the State Department indicated that it will hold off on applying its new public charge rule temporarily.  Public comments on the Department of State’s rule will be accepted through Nov. 12, 2019, and it’s likely that it, too, will be subject to federal court challenge.

Regarding Refugee Resettlement in FY 2020, as discussed in this post, the administration announced it will cap refugee admissions at 18,000 for FY 2020 and newly require that states and localities specifically consent to accepting refugees for resettlement.  These changes may result in even fewer than 18,000 refugees being resettled, and represent an abdication of the U.S.’s historic role since 1980 as the world’s leader in offering permanent safe haven to refugees.

Additionally, as we explain here, a new health insurance requirement that immigrants from abroad either have the financial means to pay for their medical care, or have proof that they will be able to acquire unsubsidized (ie. not through the ACA) health insurance within 30 days after arrival in the U.S. is predicted to result in as many as 375,000 immigrants annually being denied their visas to immigrate to the U.S.  Immediate family immigrants will be most impacted by this new requirement.

Finally, an update to the unemployment numbers mentioned below:  at 3.5%, the nation’s unemployment rate in September 2019 is the lowest since December 1969, and Maine’s 2.9% unemployment rate in August 2019 represents its 44th consecutive month below 4%.   The vast majority of immigrants to Maine come through the family and refugee streams.  Given Maine’s aging population and labor supply shortages, these cuts to legal immigration could not come at a worse time.

ORIGINAL POST (Aug. 14, 2019)

Maine’s July 2019 unemployment rate was 3%, remaining  below 4% for a record 43rd consecutive month.   At the same time, the state’s population continues to age and our workforce continues to shrink, presenting challenges for economic growth.  While Maine’s situation, as pointed out  recently by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, is more dire than the rest of the nation, the entire country will face constraints posed by an aging population and low birth rates.

This is not a time to put new limits on legal immigration.  However, the Trump Administration is doing just that through new rules affecting intending immigrants, and proposed reductions in refugee resettlement.

  • New Public Charge Rule:

On August 14, 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officially issued a final rule  that will result in dramatic reductions in immediate family immigration.   A draft of the rule was released in October 2018,  changing decades of interpretation of the “public charge” ground of inadmissibility.   Despite over 250,000 comments opposing the draft rule, the final rule is substantially the same as the prior version, and is slated to take effect on October 15, 2019. An explanation of the key provisions and their impact can be found in this prior MeBIC post.

While the administration states that the rule will ensure that new immigrants don’t use public benefits, the draft and final rules’ lengthy preambles acknowledge that most immigrants have never received public benefits before immigrating, are ineligible for income support public benefits for their first five years of residency, and in general use benefits at similar or lower  rates than native-born U.S. citizens.   The unstated actual purpose of the rule is to reduce immediate family immigration, bypassing Congress, which has not backed the administration’s legislative efforts to achieve that goal.

Family immigration represents about 66% of all immigrants annually.  Implementation of this rule is likely to halve immigration by immediate family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and will have devastating effects for our aging communities and shrinking workforce.  As explained here, this will result in a substantial reduction of new immigrants settling in Maine, when the state needs newcomers to stem the challenges resulting from its aging workforce and depopulation.

You can find further critiques of the new rule in this Wall Street Journal  editorial  and this commentary from the Cato Institute.   This op-ed in the Portland Press Herald by MeBIC Board Member David Barber (in response to aspects of the proposed version of the rule, all of which remain in the final rule)  is a reminder that new immigrants, regardless of modest backgrounds and means, have long contributed to the fabric of the nation and will continue to do so in the future.

As of August 16, 2019, four lawsuits had been filed in the federal courts challenging the legality of the new rule and requesting that the government be enjoined from implementing it.  The State of Maine is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits; you can read that complaint here.

  • Cuts to Refugee Admissions in FY 2020

Annual refugee resettlement ceilings, set each year by the President, have been slashed from former President Obama’s 110,000 number in FY 2017 to only 30,000 in FY 2019.   For FY 2020, the administration is reportedly considering cutting refugee admissions to between zero and 10,000.  This would be a complete abdication of our nation’s legal and moral obligations to offer protection to refugees at a time when there are a record 25.9 million  individuals worldwide who have been forced to flee their home countries.

In addition, it is economically short-sighted.   In Maine, refugee admissions are a fraction of what they were in FY 2016, when more than 650 refugees were resettled in the state.  As of July 31, 2019, Maine had received 131 refugees for resettlement, with only two months remaining in this fiscal year.

Together, refugees and immediate family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents comprise the bulk of immigrants making Maine their new home each year.

Further cuts to refugee admissions, combined with cuts to family immigration as a result of the public charge rule, would result in approximately 1000 fewer immigrants settling annually in Maine compared to FY 2016 numbers, likely leading to net population loss in the state. 

The administration states it supports legal immigration.  Its actions speak to the contrary, and if implemented, will damage Maine’s communities and economy, as well as the nation’s.