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USCIS Grants Help Immigrants Prepare to Become US Citizens

Green card and social security card
A social security id card and a permanent resident card

On September 26, 2019, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the organization would award nearly $10 million in grants to 41 organizations responsible for preparing lawful permanent residents (LPRs) for citizenship.

The grants were also intended to help with assimilation into American culture through the funding of educational programs dedicated to educating immigrants on U.S. history, English, and civics. These organizations are located in 24 states. They will receive federal funding to support naturalization preparation services for LPRs up through September 2021.

How USCIS Grants Have Helped Immigrants

Since its inception in 2009, the Citizenship and Assimilation Grant Program has awarded immigrant-serving organizations over $92 million in 434 competitive grants within 39 states and the District of Columbia. By 2019, the program has provided assistance to over 245,000 LPRs seeking citizenship.

USCIS predicts that nearly 25,000 LPRs will benefit from these grants by September 30, 2021, because of the 2019 awards. Another 12,500 will benefit from the 2018 program, which ends on September 30 of next year.

All grants are given via the Citizenship Instruction and Naturalization Application Services grant opportunity. This opportunity supports organizations that assist LPRs with naturalization application and citizenship instruction.

Organizations receiving these grants are only permitted to use these funds to support immigrants who are lawfully admitted for permanent residence in the U.S.

Organizations Receiving USCIS Grants

Under the Citizenship Instruction and Naturalization Application Services funding opportunity regulations, organizations that are eligible to receive grants include private or public nonprofits that have recent experience providing assistance to LPRs for naturalization application and citizenship. These entities may include faith- and community-based groups, adult education institutions, public libraries, or literacy organizations.

The recipients in 2019 have served both traditional immigrant population centers and emerging centers located in 24 states. These recipients represent eight out of the top 10 states that have experienced the greatest population increase in LPRs along with the highest number of naturalizations between fiscal year 2015 and 2017. They also represent five out of the top 10 metropolitan locations with the greatest amount of naturalizations between 2015 and 2017.

In the process, these grants have been able to help thousands of immigrants and their families achieve citizenship and integrate into American life, and they will continue to do so into 2020 and beyond.

ICE Ignoring Policies After Veterans Risked It All

A solider with his daughter
A daughter holding her solider father’s hand

As new legislation has been reintroduced to help ease the transition to citizenship for deported immigrant veterans, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to ignore policies already in place.

Although there are special considerations for immigration cases involving immigrant veterans, advocates say ICE is failing to review service records and thousands of vets are still getting deported.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it is not entirely known just how widespread the issue is due to insufficient record-keeping.

Failure to Track Deportations and Arrests

ICE is failing to adhere to the policy necessitating a service record review prior to deporting immigrant veterans. The organization also doesn’t track how many of these individuals are caught by federal agents or subsequently deported.

GAO discovered that ICE failed to follow its own policies involving veterans undergoing deportation from the years 2013 to 2018.

Many legal immigrants in the U.S. serve in the Armed Forces because it can help them earn citizenship, but they may not always qualify or complete the process. After separating, they may spend several years in the country until incidents such as criminal convictions come to ICE’s attention.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee required GAO to look through two databases. In the process, GAO found 250 veterans who had gone through removal along with 92 who had been deported.

ICE Policies for Veterans

Since 2004, ICE agents have been required to follow guidelines appearing in two memos regarding how to handle notices to appear for veterans, which is the initial step of the immigrant deportation process. As of 2015, cases have required submission to higher headquarters for review.

ICE agents must consider the following, at a minimum:

Regarding years of service, agents need to review how many years of service each veteran completed, awards, and deployments. If officials decide to proceed with the deportation, veterans’ files need to include memos detailing the service review.

This doesn’t happen in every case. In fact, the GAO report found that twenty-one percent of cases never receive a full review of service, and 70 percent never go to a higher office.

Legislation has been introduced to help protect immigrant veterans as ICE fails to follow existing policies.

The Repatriate Our Patriots Act

In addition to helping make obtaining citizenship easier for veterans who were later deported for criminal activity, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act would prevent federal officials from deporting those veteran immigrants, ensuring that they acquire legal permanent residency after their criminal sentences are carried out.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, stated that if a veteran is willing to put his or her life on the line to defend the U.S., he or she “should be able to become a U.S. citizen,” adding, “It is inexcusable that service members who risked it all to protect us would be put through the deportation process.”

Both Young and another representative, Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas, pushed the bill, though it made minimal progress toward passage. However, now that Democrats are in control of the House, lawmakers are hoping that the bill will gain some momentum despite long odds in the Senate which is still Republican-controlled.

The Ongoing Debate Around Immigration

The reintroduction of this move comes as the nation continues to be divided regarding immigration, which has already initiated a partial government shutdown lasting for a month along with White House officials’ accusations that insufficient national security measures are putting the country at risk.

According to the two legislators behind the bill, the Repatriate Our Patriots Act would help ensure that immigrant veterans who served their time in prison for any crimes committed would be able to remain in the country, as long as they served honorably in the military.

The bill acknowledges that certain mental conditions such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder can increase the risk of substance abuse, and the subsequent minor drug offenses can lead to deportation for immigrants undergoing the naturalization process.

The Act wouldn’t protect veterans convicted of serious violent crimes including murder, child abuse, rape, or terrorism. It would also exclude immigrants facing serious legal issues while still serving in the Armed Forces.

Ultimately, this bill could help ensure that immigrant veterans who have served their time in prison for previous crimes can gain and retain citizenship in the U.S., thus helping veteran immigrants who were negligently deported get another chance.

Applying for Immigration Benefits? Your Social Media Accounts Could Be in the Spotlight

Social media apps
Closeup of social media applications on a smart phone

The Department of Homeland Security will soon be collecting social media information from approximately 33 million immigrants annually who apply for permission to enter or stay in the United States as well as those applying to become U.S. citizens. Questions about social media accounts and user names will be added to applications and USCIS forms in the coming weeks.

Why the Change?

DHS attributes the change to President Trump’s Executive Order 13780, which sought to improve security by creating additional scrutiny for people who want to enter the United States. People familiar with Trump’s “heavy vetting” rhetoric may understand where this change is coming from.

“U.S. Government departments and agencies involved in screening and vetting, to include DHS, identified the collection of social media user identifications (also known as usernames, identifiers, or ‘handles’) and associated publicly available social media platforms used by the applicant during the past five years, as important for identity verification, immigration and national security vetting,” states the DHS notice published on September 4.

In the past, DHS officials have used publicly available social media information to determine an applicant’s eligibility, but only now have they begun to consider forcing applicants to give up that information.

Which Sites Are of Interest?

DHS said they picked the social media websites of interest based on their global presence. These include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, Tumbler, Pinterest and ten others.

Another DHS notice published in the Federal Register said immigrants will be made to include their current and past phone numbers and email addresses as well as other biographical data points.

Which Forms Will Be Impacted?

For immigration forms, the policy change will affect:

  • Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
  • Form I-192, Application for Advance Permission to Enter as a Nonimmigrant
  • Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
  • Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
  • Form I-590, Registration for Classification as Refugee

The change will also impact the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, Form I-94W Nonimmigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record, and the Electronic Visa Update System (EVUS).

While the policy change raises privacy concerns for immigrants, DHS asserts that it will only review the information that is publicly available. By setting social media accounts to “private”, immigrants can minimize the amount of information available to DHS.

F-1 Students: ICE STEM OPT Site Inspections Are Underway

visa page
A closeup view of two U.S. visa pages and one pen

Recent reports show Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun making workplace visits in businesses that employ F-1 students in optional practical training (OPT) in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Though ICE was allotted the right to inspect businesses that support OPT in 2016 to make sure they are complying with STEM OPT regulations, the agency only recently began conducting inspections. A company employing STEM OPT workers should be prepared in case ICE visits the office.

How Do People Know if ICE Is Coming?

ICE will usually give 48 hours’ written notice before they come to a place of business, though they may come unannounced if they’re responding to a complaint or have evidence that the company is not complying with STEM OPT regulations.

An inspection may include interviews with personnel, a discussion of the immigrant’s training plan and its implementation, and a review of his or her skills work in relation to the STEM degree. ICE may also view F-1 employee work areas or request a tour of the property.

Why ICE Wants to Check-In

Though there is no evidence to support that foreign students are a risk to the employment opportunities of people born in the U.S., the Trump administration has tried to complicate the OPT experience. In April 2018, USCIS changed its website to prohibit OPT students from working for third-parties.

The May 2016 STEM OPT regulation, which granted ICE the power to check in on F-1 employers, states ICE wants to know if the students are getting paid according to regulation. However, there’s a concern ICE will use these visits to target the students instead of their employers. Companies should be prepared with documentation to aid in these visits.

Specific penalties for employer violations are not described in the regulations, but many claim that violations may create risks for students.

On the Forms I-983, which employers complete to disclose information on their handling of OPT students, the employers accept that DHS may deny, revoke, or terminate the STEM OPT of students whom DHS decides are not complying with the law. This poses a greater risk for the students, who may be taken from their work, than their employers, whose punishments are not clearly defined.

Are Public Assistance Benefits Standing Between You and Your Green Card?

A permanent resident green card and a social security card

On Friday Oct. 12, three federal courts blocked one of the Trump administration’s most aggressive measures to curb legal immigration. The DHS regulation, which was planned to go into effect in mid-October, would have denied immigrants who receive assistance like SNAP or Medicaid from obtaining a green card. Since Aug. 14, when DHS released the controversial measure, it was feared that on Oct. 15 the final rule on the public charge ground of inadmissibility would go into effect. But, with three days to spare, the measure has been enjoined.

What Was the Controversial Regulation?

The rule did not change the law, but rather outlined a new interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which already allows DHS or JOI to deny visa applications on the grounds that the individual is a public charge. The INA states what determines a public charge is largely decided by the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of the application.

This has meant in the past that immigrants got denied when the government feared the individual would be unable to support themselves without federal assistance. However, Trump’s attempted regulation would have made “public charge” relate to any immigrant who receives one or more designated public benefit for more than 12 months in a 36-month period.

Under Trump’s new reading, DHS would have only considered the individual’s benefits when determining if public benefits should make them ineligible for a visa. The benefits received by members of the individual’s family would not have been considered.

Who Blocked It?

On Friday Oct. 12, representing another defeat for the Trump administration, Judge George Daniels of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting the administration from enforcing their “public charge” rule. 

A Washington state federal judge also blocked the regulation nationwide, and a third district court judge in San Francisco said the Trump administration could not enforce the rule within the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Which Benefits Would Have Made Immigrants Public Charges?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a list of benefits that would have deemed someone a public charge. Some of them include:

  • Federal state, local or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance (often called “General Assistance”)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation)
  • Federally funded Medicaid

Which Benefits Would Have Not Made Immigrants Public Charges?

Under this regulation, not all benefits would have deemed someone a public charge. There were some excluded benefits that would not block a visa application. These included:

  • Medicaid for an emergency medical condition
  • Medicaid provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • School-based services or benefits given to people who are at or below the oldest age-eligible for secondary education as determined under state or local law
  • Medicaid received when under 21
  • Medicaid received by a pregnant woman and during the 60-day period beginning on the last day of the pregnancy

Why Was the Public Charge Rule Blocked?

Daniels stated in his ruling, “The Rule is simply a new agency policy of exclusion in search of a justification. It is repugnant to the American dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upwards mobility.”

Like similar Trump immigration regulations in the past, this appeared to the judges to be an excuse to exclude people who otherwise would have lawfully been allowed visas. They saw it as a counter to American values, an opinion which could be supported by Ken Cuccinelli’s, Acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director, anecdotal rereading of “The New Colossus” poem inside the Statue to Liberty.

“Give me your tired your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he told NPR in August.

Will This Regulation Resurface?

While this intended regulation has been blocked, there are other ways the Trump administration has worked to illegalize previously legal forms of immigration. On Oct. 4, the Trump administration issued an 800-page proclamation that will deny immigrants seeking visas if they are unable to afford health insurance.

The “Presidential Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Will Financially Burden the United States Healthcare System” is planned to go into effect on Nov. 7, that is if federal judges don’t block this new regulation as well.

The ruling would allow the government to only accept visa petitions made abroad if the applicant could prove they will be financially secure enough to get health insurance within a month of their arrival the U.S. If they would unable to pay for insurance, the immigrant would have would have to prove they would have the financial resources to pay “reasonably foreseeable medical costs.”

Immigration activists have denounced this regulation.