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Will Filing For Unemployment Hurt My Green Card? Legal Immigrants Are Afraid


Some legal immigrants in this country, even those about to become citizens, are hesitating to apply for unemployment. They should be eligible, just like most people who find themselves suddenly unemployed. And getting that help should not affect their status. But still, they are afraid. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Alex (ph) And Daphne (ph) have been together almost five years. And this spring, they were newlyweds with burgeoning careers in Colorado - Daphne turning up for a new job at a local theater, Alex juggling gigs as a motion graphic freelancer and a barista. And then coronavirus happened.

ALEX: We both got laid off from our jobs. I think we were wondering for a long time, can I apply for unemployment? And how is it going to affect the green card application.

DAPHNE: Immigration-wise, I just don't know if it would hurt me.

ALEX: Alex is American, but Daphne's from Germany. We're only using the couple's first names because they're waiting for the U.S. government to decide whether to grant Daphne a green card. It's a piece of paper that would turn her from a temporary visitor into a permanent resident, extending her right to work and live with her husband in America. And they were worried that collecting unemployment might jeopardize all that.

TSUI YEE: I just had the same conversation with a client of mine who was so concerned and so frightened.

SELYUKH: Tsui Yee is an immigration lawyer in New York. She says she's been getting lots of questions about whether the Trump administration might reject applications for green cards or even citizenship from foreigners who suddenly find themselves unemployed here, like millions of Americans.

YEE: What I'm seeing is a lot of clients who are eligible to apply for unemployment or are simply just too afraid to do so.

SELYUKH: At the heart of their worries is a recent new policy that made it more difficult for immigrants to gain permanent resident status if it looks like they may need public assistance. It's often called the public charge rule. Daphne was so concerned about seeking unemployment insurance in the middle of her green card review that she called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hotline.

DAPHNE: So they were like, yeah, you should be fine. And it's like, that's cool. I guess we should be OK. Great. And then it's obviously nerve-wracking.

SELYUKH: And here's the thing about unemployment and the public charge rule.

ALLEN ORR: Unemployment does not get the public charge rule.

SELYUKH: Allen Orr is an executive at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

ORR: The perception is the problem, not the reality that they're entitled to it because they're just entitled to it like everyone else.

SELYUKH: Unemployment is not public assistance. It's insurance. And its costs are covered by workers and employers, not taxpayers. But the perception has run away from reality as the White House moves to restrict immigration, making big changes to rules where things that didn't used to count against you now do. And President Trump keeps rallying supporters with rhetoric about immigrants.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Newcomers compete for jobs against the most vulnerable Americans and put pressure on our social safety net and generous welfare programs.

SELYUKH: I have now heard of at least a half dozen foreign workers legally earning a living in the U.S., paying taxes and in some cases, even understanding that unemployment is not welfare but still hesitating to apply.

RITA: I'm not applying for unemployment. I don't want that right now.

SELYUKH: Rita came to the U.S. from Guatemala to study film and acting and has been working in California as a permanent resident for several years. Like many, the pandemic left her and her spouse with no income. And we're using her first name because Rita is waiting on a renewal of her green card, hoping to apply for citizenship. And she's worried that taking unemployment will look bad, like she's asking America for money.

RITA: I prepared myself. And I came here legally. And I'm not here to take advantage of anything.

SELYUKH: She says she just wants the pandemic to end and to go back to work.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.