Immigrants will face more hurdles to prove they will not become a “public charge” under a recent change to federal law – at the same time health concerns related to COVID-19 raise unprecedented challenges, according to Immigration Legal Services (ILS) at Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center.

“Survival is principal,” said Mikhael Borgonos, managing attorney of ILS. “We need to concentrate now on putting life as the priority, especially in this whirlpool of public charge and the coronavirus pandemic.”

Federal law has long allowed immigration officials to consider an individual’s age, health, education, family status, and skills when making decisions about immigration status. Officials use these factors to help determine whether a person will become a “public charge,” believed likely to depend primarily on government benefits to get by, and therefore denied admission to the U.S.

The recent changes apply a stricter standard to the “public charge” rule by, for example, more heavily weighing any negative factors, redefining how the government counts an individual’s access to benefits over time, and emphasizing proof of financial resources.

These standards will create new challenges for many within the population ILS serves. The team of 14, which includes nine attorneys, juggles about 1,300 Maryland-centered immigration cases at a time, with support from pro bono attorneys statewide. Clients cannot afford private legal counsel, and turn to ILS for a range of issues, from green card applications to support related to asylum, trafficking, or special status for juveniles.

The “public charge” rule applies only to some of ILS’ cases, but Borgonos said the team has already begun to see the impact of the change. In one case, a client trying to immigrate from the Philippines to join family members in Maryland was denied at the embassy in Manila because of “public charge,” even though their American sponsors had submitted tax filings demonstrating their financial standing. In other cases, documented and undocumented clients in the U.S. are trying to “right themselves with the law,” Borgonos said, but the rule change discourages them from doing so.

“If they are considered a public charge by the government, they could then be on the radar to be placed in deportation proceedings and potentially removed from the United States,” he explained.

In general, most undocumented immigrants have little or no access to public benefits until they become permanent residents of the U.S. But there are many grey areas in how the law may be interpreted, based on immigration status, family status, and other factors.

As COVID-19 began to sweep across the country, the federal government assured undocumented immigrants that accessing free testing or treatment for the virus would not be included in “public charge” considerations. Some advocates, however, wondered whether that access could count against immigrants later, as the new guidelines point toward a review of a “totality of circumstances.”

Borgonos said ILS attorneys consistently counsel clients to focus first on safety and survival – advice that has become particularly important during the coronavirus pandemic.

The new rules have also added to the ILS team’s workload. There are more forms to file, information to gather, and evidence to produce. Without free legal help, many of these steps can be harder for ILS clients, who may face a host of challenges, including not being able to speak or read English.

“There’s almost an avalanche of issues surrounding the client. It’s why you need an interdisciplinary team of support,” said Borgonos. He pointed to the medical, social work, and language supports available at Esperanza Center as reasons the community trusts the wide-ranging Catholic Charities program. “In the present public charge realm, we’re requiring immigrants who come in to be well-off financially, economically, educationally, which is just different than the wave of immigrants coming to the U.S. at this time.”