Area officials are promising a fight over proposed restrictions that could prevent immigrants from getting green cards if they have received certain types of public assistance.

A 60-day public comment period began last week, and local officials held a news conference Oct. 11 to urge people to protest the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) policy change. Among those speaking out against the change were area congressman Jimmy Panetta, Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst and representatives from Santa Cruz area aid agencies.

The Trump administration’s new rules could take effect as early as February 2019 and would require immigrants to pass a more stringent green card test before they could obtain legal residency. Poverty, poor English, lack of education or a bad credit score each could negatively impact green card applicants. 

“We need to oppose this,” said Doug Keegan, program director of the Santa Cruz County Immigration project. “This is cruel. This is inhumane. Some would even say this is racist.” 

Refugees, asylees, and special imigrant juveniles would be exempt from the tougher requirements. Current green card holders would not be impacted, although they are warned to limit their travel abroad.

Residents were urged to go online to file a protest to the DHS, which initiated the new policy. Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst asked people to band together in opposition to the  change.

“We need to stand up and be very clear about our united front, about standing together,” Hurst said, “[…] and try to overcome the adversities that are placed upon us, particularly by insensitive folk almost a continent away.”

Most of the officials at the news conference agreed the policy change was politically motivated. Raymon Cancino, chief executive officer of Community Bridges, a nonprofit working with low-income residents of Santa Cruz County, called the rule change a deliberate attempt to polarize people before the upcoming  election.

Officials from local aid organizations said they’ve already seen a drop in people looking for public assistance because people worry using services could prevent them from getting a green card. Dori Rose Inda, chief executive officer of the health services provider Salud Para La Gente, noted the rule hasn’t gone into effect and will not be retroactive, meaning those currently receiving benefits can continue to do so during the comment period without consequence.

She added Salud Para La Gente is committed to continuing services if the rule change is approved.

Responding on a national level, congressman Jimmy Panetta said he sponsored a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to implement the policy, which he believes will pass the House of Representatives if Democrats reclaim control of Congress.

Watsonville Mayor Lowell Hurst said the country has changed since he came of age, pointing to President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

“Now it seems like there’s just a war on the poor and a war on immigrants,” Hurst  said.