This summer, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would make it much tougher for migrants who are “a public charge”—that is, those who utilize Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance—to remain in the United States or obtain legal status. The new rules may have serious ramifications for thousands of religious workers in communities who have come to the United States to work as teachers, chaplains, health care workers, or to enter religious life. These men and women may have to consider what a vow of poverty might mean for their ability to stay in the United States. As a Catholic sister and leader, I am concerned about how the public charge rule will affect immigrant religious workers.
This change will erect a huge hurdle for potentially millions of immigrants who will need to prove they can sustain a middle-class lifestyle on their own before they even get a foot in the door, as experts at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) explain. But immigrants contribute to society by working hard, caring for family and community members and educating children—by being interdependent. Immigrant priests, brothers and women religious contribute in all these ways.
Men and women may have to consider what a vow of poverty might mean for their ability to stay in the United States.
I expect most immigrant religious workers are primarily worried about how the communities they serve will be hurt by these new standards. But there also are potentially detrimental implications for the religious workers themselves.
In deciding whether an applicant will likely become a “public charge,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services assesses factors like the applicant’s age, health, family status, education and skills, as well as assets, resources and financial status. Decisions are made by immigration officers based upon a “totality of the circumstances.” Being over the age of 61 could be counted as a negative factor, while a positive factor might be that an applicant has private health insurance as soon as he or she arrives in the United States.
The D.H.S. rules include no exemption for religious workers. If I were an immigrant, I would not meet the standards as reflected in the new public charge rule.
This process causes particular problems for religious workers in the following respects:
- Men and women in religious orders—like the Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans or Carmelites, or Buddhist monks and others whose lives are devoted to their vocation—take vows of poverty. Their religious communities provide for their simple needs. But unlike previous “public charge” criteria that considered the income of sponsors, the new rules shift attention to the income of individual applicants, which is negligible for most members of religious orders.
- Many immigrant religious workers first come to the United States in their 50s or 60s. For example, a sister assigned to represent a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations might be an older, knowledgeable woman who has spent decades working with underserved communities around the world. (Leaders within religious communities usually do not assume high-level positions until they are 50 or older.)
- Health care coverage for religious orders does not necessarily come through traditional insurance plans and may not meet D.H.S. standards for proof of insurance. For example, one cloistered community of nuns that CLINIC represents has an agreement with a Catholic hospital system to provide health care for its members. This is not a traditional insurance plan, but they are not receiving care at the government’s expense.
- When women and men come to the United States for religious formation, it is typically not through traditional educational systems. They do not have student visas, and their training may be through hands-on work in parishes and other settings. Even with such valuable roles, their minimal employment history and requirement to live vows of poverty may create insurmountable obstacles to remaining in the United States under the public charge guidelines.
The D.H.S. rules include no exemption for religious workers who face these obstacles. If I were an immigrant, I would not meet the standards as reflected in the new public charge rule.
The government has suggested that this problem can be managed under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. However, the R.F.R.A. requires individuals or organizations to show how a law or policy imposes a burden on the exercise of religion. The lengthy lawsuit process would make it impractical to use the R.F.R.A. as a way to help a foreign-born religious worker who is currently being denied entry due to the public charge rule.
Religious workers provide vital work to communities, hospitals and schools, and they add to the spiritual strength and well-being of the United States. The communities they serve help to keep our economy humming and continue the American tradition of welcoming immigrants. Requiring these workers to meet income standards based on a middle-class lifestyle represents a core misunderstanding and rejection of their work and value.
I ask and pray that the Trump administration will fix the broken immigration system. But for now, it seems to be seeking every way possible to break up families and communities. The government’s sweeping redefinition of who constitutes a “public charge” and is therefore unworthy of admission to the United States is itself unworthy of our national values.