The hardest part for Yesenia Timoteo is understanding why.
She wants to know why President Donald Trump would choose to deny green cards to immigrants just because they use public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. She wonders why he thinks those who need help are any less worthy of a chance to become permanent residents and improve their prospects.
And why does it matter when so few of those who have crossed the border to get here — including herself and her parents — even qualify for those services, because of their immigration status?
“I don’t have the answer,” said Timoteo, 27, who came to Utah from Mexico when she was 3. “For me as an immigrant, I am just baffled.”
The latest announcement by Trump to further restrict legal immigration came Monday. It is the most aggressive action yet for his administration and will require those seeking green cards, which grant permanent legal residency, to prove they won’t be a burden to the U.S. If it’s determined they could be, they’ll be at risk of deportation.
The exact parameters of this so-called “wealth test" are so broad it’s created panic in the immigrant community nationwide. And that’s the only reason Timoteo can come up with for why Trump might institute the rule.
It doesn’t apply to her, and even still she’s afraid. “The Latino community is scared,” Timoteo added. “We are living in fear. And this will make it worse.”
Already in Utah, some immigrant parents have pulled their kids off Medicaid — even those whose kids are U.S. citizens — out of fear. A few have decided not to submit applications for subsidized housing, according to an immigration attorney here. And a handful have asked to remove their names from the list for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in hopes that their applications for green cards won’t be denied.
Timoteo, the state director for the Utah chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said it’s setting up an impossible decision. Many legal immigrants feel they have to either get assistance and forego permanent residency, or reject help, including health care for their babies, and hope they can eventually stay in the United States instead.
“It’s a really small population of people impacted,” added Alyssa Williams, an immigration attorney for Catholic Community Services in Utah. “But it’s definitely scared the crap out of the community.”
In the state, one in 12 residents is an immigrant, according to data from the American Immigration Council. Though only a fraction of those are eligible for green cards, many of the hundreds of thousands of others, Williams added, are reacting like Timoteo and many plan to stop asking for government help.
Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a Utah-based immigrant rights organization, said the rule favors the wealthy and scares everyone else.
“It’s putting wealth and income as the main determining factors of who gets to come here,” he said. “But many immigrants are working multiple jobs. They’re working minimum wage jobs."
He said he’s heard from many in the state who no longer feel comfortable applying for benefits — even though they pay taxes that feed the programs.
Already, the law for those applying for a green card requires applicants to say they won’t become a “public charge.” Trump redefines the term to mean those who are “more likely than not” to need public assistance shouldn’t be granted permanent status; that call is based largely on an analysis of an applicant’s financial resources in the subjective opinion of an official reviewing the case. There are some exceptions listed in the rule: those who receive assistance under the age of 21, school lunch subsidies, student loans and others.
During a news conference at the White House on Monday, Kenneth Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the rule would help the government to know which immigrants would be self-reliant.
He explained: “The benefit to taxpayers is a long-term benefit of seeking to ensure that our immigration system is bringing people to join us as American citizens, as legal permanent residents first, who can stand on their own two feet, who will not be reliant on the welfare system, especially in the age of the modern welfare state which is so expansive and expensive."
The newest policy, which takes effect in mid-October, is the latest in Trump’s longstanding plans to overhaul the immigration system in the U.S. It comes less than 10 days after a mass shooting in Texas where the gunman targeted Latinos. And five days after the president ordered a massive immigration raid at Mississippi food processing plants.
“This is a very difficult time already,” Garza said, noting that the policy puts salt on a fresh wound.
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said one in nine Utah households struggle to afford enough food.
“These kinds of policy changes make it that much more difficult for families who need help to access programs. It is unacceptable that families are being discouraged from applying for federal programs like SNAP to which they are entitled,” she said in a statement Tuesday.
Still, overall, low-income immigrants are less likely to use Medicaid or food stamps than low-income native-born Americans, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.
Antonella Packard came to Utah from Honduras in 1988 for school. She got a student visa, then a work visa, applied for temporary residency and later permanent residency. Overall, the process took nearly 15 years.
She didn’t use government assistance — but doesn’t think that should determine whether or not she got a green card.
“This is harsh by any standards,” Packard said. “It really feels incredibly targeted. And it hasn’t sat well with many people in our community. They have legal papers. They have the right to qualify for that assistance.”
Timoteo said that at times, she might have found it useful to receive government benefits. But, because she is here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, she’s not allowed to apply. Even if she could, she now feels too afraid.
“Where am I supposed to run to? Should I go hide under a rock?” she asked. “Why is this happening?”