Published: Sunday, October 19, 1997
Obligation: Citizens to be financially responsible for immigrants they sponsor
By Beth Haller, Mercury News Staff Writer
Immigration rules to be unveiled Monday will make individual U.S. citizens financially responsible for the immigrants they sponsor — a requirement that may profoundly change who comes to this country and how long they stay.
The rules — part of federal efforts to prevent immigrants from being a ”burden” on society — set new minimum income levels for those who may bring family members from other countries. They also transform sponsorship into a contractual obligation, meaning an individual could be sued for failing to support a sponsored immigrant.
Family-sponsored immigrants are by far the largest class of legal immigrants to the United States, making up more than 80 percent of the nationwide total and about 95 percent of South Bay immigrants. Based on past data, experts suggest that as many as one-third of families hoping to be sponsors will be unable to meet the new income threshold, which is set at 125 percent of poverty level, or about $20,000 for a family of four.
It’s difficult to predict how many families will qualify and then be forced to support their sponsored immigrants. But a Mercury News review of immigration records underscores the potential.
Half of the 19,783 adult immigrants who came to the Bay Area in 1995 for ”Family Reunification” reported having no occupation. That suggests that their prospects for employment in the Unites States may be low — and their need for financial assistance great.
Nevertheless, those who work with immigrants and sponsoring families suggest the new law will not dissuade many of them — at least at first. New immigrants from countries with family-centered cultures like Vietnam — the largest source of immigrants to Santa Clara County, with 24 percent of the total in 1995 — are determined to get their relatives here, they say.
”It may just slow them down, but they will scrape together to get them here,” said Maria Picetti, director of Catholic Charities immigration legal services in San Jose.
New set of standards
That might come as a disappointment to INS officials, who insist that the new rules will discourage ”irresponsible” immigration.
”It will cut down on those people who are very carefree about who they sponsor,” Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Bill Strassberger said. ”We want to avoid having people coming here thinking they are going to be taken care of (by the government).”
The new immigration rules will take effect Dec. 19.
The heart of the rules is the concept of immigration sponsorship, which has long existed in law. Under the law, immigrants who come to the United States for ”family reunification” must have a sponsor, who promises to support the immigrant if he or she becomes ill, disabled or unemployed within three years of entering the country.
But the law has never contained any firm requirements that a sponsor had to meet, nor did it outline enforcement if the sponsor abandoned the obligation.
As a result of this and other issues, large numbers of immigrants ended up on some sort of welfare program. That was the case until 1996, when Congress declared most non-citizen immigrants ineligible for welfare as part of broader reform. Legislators overhauled the sponsorship rules simultaneously, driven by some compelling logic: If the government isn’t going to support legal immigrants, it ought to make certain that someone will.
Santa Clara County is one of the few counties in the nation that has aggressively enforced sponsorship obligations. Beginning in 1993, it began demanding that sponsors reimburse the county for county-funded welfare payments to legal immigrants.
The new rules define sponsors’ obligations starkly: They are completely responsible for sponsored immigrants until the immigrants become U.S. citizens, work 10 years, die or return to their country. No longer are sponsors allowed to find a third-party organization to share responsibility for the immigrant. In the past, it was typical for churches to sign so-called affidavits of support.
Making careful choices
In a sense, the rules are intended to make every sponsor act like Maria Lourdes Ibarra did.
Ibarra, a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines who lives in San Jose, said she and her sister carefully considered their decision to bring her 70-year-old mother here in 1991, even though they were covered by older INS rules.
Worried about the expense of medical care, Ibarra and her sister even took out an insurance policy on her mother for catastrophic illnesses. Never did they consider seeking public support.
But Ibarra is financially secure; she works in the accounting department of Evergreen School District, and her husband is a professor at San Jose City College.
The biggest puzzle about the new rules is their impact: How many prospective sponsors will fail to meet the new financial requirements? And how many of those who qualify will shy away from sponsorship because of the new responsibilities?
Some observers are convinced that the new rules will put families in a box. The result, they say, will be a substantial barrier to immigration.
”No one will be able to bring anyone over. Their families will remain disjointed,” said the Rev. Jim Crawford of First United Methodist Church of San Jose which has sponsored about 20 Vietnamese refugee families, has a Sunday service in Vietnamese, and provides numerous immigrant-related programs.
But others think the desire of families to be reunited is too powerful. They suggest that most potential sponsors will find the money to qualify, and just hope for the best.
Huy Quang Nguyen of San Jose, who helped establish the Vietnamese American Community Center in 1994, worries about the impact of the new law on those with whom he works, but he doesn’t think it will dissuade them. ”Many people are still in Vietnam. No family is totally here,” he said, describing the pressures to bring family members over.
It’s difficult to get a comprehensive sense of the impact. There are no good studies of immigrant sponsors that detail their income levels. But studies of legal immigrants as a whole suggest that about one-third of them are too poor to meet the requirements to become sponsors, said Richard Hobbs, director of the Santa Clara County Citizenship and Immigration Program.
High welfare rates
Other studies suggest that legal immigrants have had a welfare rate of about 6.6 percent, one-third more than the rate for native-born Americans — although part of the disparity comes from refugees, who use welfare heavily and come to the country under a different program.
Further, a Mercury News analysis of INS records shows that half of adult immigrants arriving under the family reunification program describe themselves as students, unemployed or retired — a figure that suggests they could well need outside support.
But those figures beg another question. Under the new rules, how will the government handle individuals who fail to support their sponsored immigrants? The law allows the government to sue sponsors; it allows welfare agencies to sue; it even allows the immigrants to sue. But officials acknowledged privately that they have set up no mechanism to find offenders and punish them.
Some anti-immigration groups think the rules don’t go far enough. The Federation for American Immigration Reform supports tighter sponsorship rules and would like to increase the income threshold further, to 200 percent of the poverty level.
And not everyone who works with immigrants thinks the new rules are a bad idea. The requirements, for instance, make sense to Hans Frick, a retired Presbyterian minister in San Jose who has worked with refugee relocation and immigrants for many years.
”I feel this is good that the income requirement is higher,” said Frick, who immigrated from Germany in 1959. ”I feel concerned when I see people arrive — the sponsor has three children and the new person has four children. It’s too many people living in one place.
But Khanh Vu, whose mother-in-law and father-in-law immigrated recently from Vietnam, is worried — both about their health and what will happen if he can’t afford to help.
”We don’t need money,” said Vu, a 56-year-old working in San Jose. ”We need Medicare.”