MIAMI – When Hurricane Michael tore through north Florida in October, it completely destroyed a car wash business owned by a Palestinian immigrant. The Category 4 storm also caused significant damage to his house and an office building that he owns in Panama City.
The man, a legal U.S. resident who first entered the U.S. in 1997 on a Fulbright Scholarship, did not request assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as so many of his neighbors did. He also thinks he’s going to decline a low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration to rebuild his car wash, a standard process for victims of natural disasters.
The reason: He is trying to finalize his asylum application and become a legal permanent resident, and he’s worried that accepting any kind of government assistance will jeopardize his petitions in light of new rules being proposed by the Trump administration.
The new “public charge” rules would limit the amount of federal assistance immigrants can receive if they want to permanently settle in the U.S., but the complicated rules have caused widespread confusion about what kind of benefits, if any, immigrants can accept.
That has left the Palestinian immigrant and his family – his wife, and their two U.S.-born children – in a legal limbo that millions of immigrants around the country are trying to sort out.
“I feel that I’ve served this country. I’m investing in my country. I’ve called it my country since the day I arrived here,” said the man, whose name is being withheld because he fears for the safety of his relatives in Palestine. “But I’m afraid to accept anything. The only assistance I ever received was the (Fulbright Scholarship). If I applied to FEMA for help, would that be considered government assistance? That’s why I’m hesitant, I’m scared to even explore that.”
The roughly 6,000 members of the migrant caravan camped out in Tijuana have been frequent targets of late for President Donald Trump, but the upcoming changes to the public charge rule will have far broader implications, affecting at least 380,000 legal immigrants a year. That represents at least 40 percent of the legal immigrants who have gone through the background checks and all the paperwork necessary each year to qualify for permanent legal residence.
Monday marks the final day that the public can comment on the proposed rule change, which had drawn more than 139,000 comments as of Thursday, a number that immigration experts say is a record high for the Department of Homeland Security. After that deadline passes, the administration may implement the final rule at any time.