This year got off to a busy start for Daphne and Alex. After almost five years together, they got married. Daphne was training for a new job at a local theater in Colorado. Alex was juggling gigs as a motion-graphics freelancer and a barista.
When the coronavirus hit, they found themselves among the millions suddenly jobless. Compounding this bad news was an unexpected anxiety: Is it safe to apply for unemployment?
"We were just wondering for a long time ... how is it going to affect the green card application?" Alex said.
"Immigration-wise, I just don't know if it would hurt me," Daphne said.
Alex is American, but Daphne is from Germany. NPR is using only their first names because they are waiting for the U.S. government to decide whether to grant Daphne a green card. This piece of paper would turn her from a temporary visitor — a foreign student — into a permanent resident, extending her right to work and live with her husband in the United States.
Theirs were among a half-dozen stories NPR gathered about legal immigrant workers, people earning a living and paying taxes in the U.S. yet fearful that collecting unemployment might jeopardize their immigration cases. Some were waiting on their first green cards; others were extending their residency or were even on the verge of becoming citizens.
"What I'm seeing is a lot of clients who are eligible to apply for unemployment are simply too afraid to do so," said New York-based immigration lawyer Tsui Yee. "Does [unemployment] somehow trigger a red flag for immigration services? Since COVID started, that question has come up repeatedly."
At the heart of these worries is a new Trump administration policy, often called the "public charge" rule, which made it more difficult for immigrants to gain permanent resident status if it looks like they may need public assistance.
"I am tired of seeing our taxpayers paying for people to come into the country and immediately go onto welfare and various other things," President Trump said while discussing the new rule in August.
But unemployment is not welfare. It's insurance, the costs of which are covered by workers and employers, not taxpayers. A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told NPR that unemployment is an "earned benefit" that isn't considered for the public charge review.
In fact, the public charge rule is not written to apply for green card renewals or citizenship applications, immigration lawyers said. Yee encouraged worried workers to consult resources from groups such as the National Immigration Law Center or immigration attorneys, some of whom offer free consultations that might cover most of their concerns.
"The perception is the problem, not the reality," said Allen Orr, an executive at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "The law has become so complex that — first, there's a financial barrier of seeing an attorney. And then in the [news], you constantly hear you're not welcome."
Perception ran away from reality as the Trump administration consistently sought to restrict immigration, making big changes to rules. Immigrant workers point out that many things that didn't count against them before now do.
"I'm not applying for unemployment. I don't want that right now," said Rita, who's been working in California as a permanent resident for several years. Like many, Rita and her spouse both lost work in the pandemic. "I'm telling you, I'm scared."
Rita came to the U.S. from Guatemala to study film and acting. NPR is using only her first name because she is waiting on a renewal of her green card, hoping to apply for citizenship. And she said she's worried that collecting unemployment will look bad — like she's asking America for money.
"I prepared myself and I came here legally," she said, her voice swelling. "I'm not here to take advantage of anything."
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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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.