Evangelical group derides Trump admin.'s immigration rule proposal as 'deeply troubling'

Russell Moore
Dr. Russell Moore speaking at an Evangelical Immigration Table press conference, Washington, D.C., July 24, 2013. |

Leaders of an evangelical immigration group are voicing their concerns with the Trump administration’s proposal to change an immigration regulation that could give the Department of Homeland Security more discretion in denying visas and green cards to immigrants who would rely too heavily on public assistance.

Leading Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore joined five of his colleagues on the Evangelical Immigration Table in issuing a statement condemning the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s proposal to alter the “public charge” rule.

The proposal was published on Oct. 10 in the Federal Register and would change how the federal government determines whether an applying immigrant is likely to need government benefits like Medicaid or food stamps and whether they would become a “public charge” under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Under the current rule, only cash assistance programs are considered to determine if an immigrant is a public charge. The new proposal would allow for things such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid to be taken into account.

Monday marked the last day of the proposal’s 60-day public comment period.

In a statement of concern issued Monday, the evangelical leaders argued that the proposed policy would keep families separated and make it more difficult for immigrants to obtain visas and green cards.

The leaders asserted that the new regulation wouldn't change policies that already restrict family-sponsored migrants from accessing “most means-tested public benefits” and does not change a requirement for U.S.-based sponsors to make “legally-binding commitment to be financially responsible for their immigrant family members.”

“Instead the proposal gives broad new discretion to government employees to deny applications for family reunification and other lawful immigrant visas based on the suspicion that an individual might someday apply for public benefits, taking into account considerations such as current income, family size, credit history and education level,” the statement reads.

The evangelical leaders added that the policy change could lead to a significant reduction in immigration to the U.S., especially for those applying on the basis of marriage or family ties.

“By one estimate, as many as 200,000 married couples annually could be denied immigrant visas, forcing the couple (and in many cases, their children) to either live separately or to live abroad,” the statement reads. “This is a deeply troubling shift in policy.”

Such a program, the evangelical leaders say, would disadvantage immigrants with multiple children, single-income families, immigrants with medical issues or special needs. They also believe it will lead to an increase in illegal immigration.

Along with Moore, the statement was signed by Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Scott Arbeiter, president of the evangelical refugee resettlement agency World Relief; Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church; and Hyepin Im, president of Faith and Empowerment (Korean Churches for Community Development).

“Over the past several years, thousands of evangelical pastors and ministry leaders have joined a call for an immigration policy that prioritizes ‘the unity of the immediate family,’” the statement explains. “Evangelicals believe that marriage is an institution created by God and that the family is the most foundational building block of society. While Christians may disagree at points on the exact role of government in caring for the poor through public benefit programs, we are unified in our commitment to maintaining the unity of the family whenever possible.”

According to Vox, the proposal would define a “public charge” as a person who “receives one or more public benefits” including Medicaid, food stamps, or financial housing benefits.

The proposal received over 210,000 public comments.

“I came to this country as a child from China through an open door policy that permitted those who served in World War II to bring their families. If it had not been for this policy honoring those who risked their lives for America, none of us could have escaped the peril of our situation,” M Chung wrote on his public comment. “It angers, distresses, and saddens me to see the U.S. turning away from this virtuous position to one that ignores the desperation of those seeking asylum in favor the financially privileged. It is the opposite of the words of hope held by the statue of liberty.”

The proposal came before the Trump administration announced new rules last month in  which immigrants who illegally cross the southern border between ports of entry into the United States would be automatically denied asylum. However, a federal judge in California blocked the rule from going into effect.

While critics of the proposal call it “cruel and unusual,” proponents of the Trump administration’s proposal say it's “consistent with our nation's goal to prioritize self-reliant immigrants, and to reserve welfare benefits for refugees and others who have arrived specifically for humanitarian reasons.”

“In my opinion, the proposed rule is a significant improvement over the status quo, but it does not go far enough. Many ordinary immigrants will still consume welfare under the new rule,” Jason Richwine, an independent public policy analyst based in Washington, D.C., wrote in his public comment.

Data from the Census Survey of Income and Program Participation analyzed by the conservative think tank Center for Immigration Studies found that 51 percent of immigrant-headed households reported using at least one welfare program in 2012. By comparison,  30 percent of native households said the same. However, those numbers seem to have increased. 

Last week, the CIS released an analysis from 2014 Census data showing that 63 percent of households headed by a noncitizens are using a welfare program, while 35 percent of native-households said the same. That number grows to 70 percent of households headed by non-citizens who have been here for 10 years or more. 

“Welfare use rises to 63 percent for households headed by noncitizen immigrants, and to a remarkable 80 percent for noncitizen households with children,” Richwine wrote. “Clearly, immigrants not only consume welfare but do so at high rates.”

There is no indication yet on when the Trump administration plans to finalize the proposal.

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