Maine immigration advocates worry that a new federal rule could make it more difficult for applicants to gain permanent residency status if they have taken public assistance, such as food stamps, housing vouchers or even health care.

They also are concerned that some who are not affected by the rule, such as asylum seekers, will be scared away from taking public assistance because they fear the regulation will be applied to them.

The new “public charge” rule is due to take effect on Feb. 24. It will make it more difficult for immigrants who have taken public assistance to get permanent residency status, commonly called a green card, which allows them to live and work in the U.S. The new rule also expands the definition of what constitutes public assistance.

The rule is being challenged in court, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that the Trump administration could start using the new standard while lawsuits against it go forward.

Immigration advocates in Maine have already gotten calls from those in the U.S. under other programs, such as asylum seekers, who have received public assistance and worry that the rule could apply to them and affect their efforts to stay here, said Sue Roche with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. The public charge rule does not apply to those in the U.S. for humanitarian reasons, such as those seeking asylum or victims of human trafficking or domestic violence, she said.

Alison Weiss of Maine Equal Justice estimated that there are about 20,000 people in Maine who could be affected by the new rule or who are likely to be concerned that it might affect them. She couldn’t provide a separate estimate of just how many are likely to be directly impacted.

Roche and Weiss encouraged immigrants who fear they might be affected by the rule to get in touch with an immigration lawyer for advice.

Weiss said the new rule is creating “a climate of fear” among immigrants in Maine and around the country. And Roche said that’s particularly troublesome in Maine, where many asylum seekers have settled while waiting for their cases to be resolved. In most cases, asylum seekers are barred from working for several months and they need to rely on public assistance programs to survive while their cases are weighed.

Roche said the irony is that the new rule might block some immigrants from gaining a legal status that would allow them to get a better job that would mean they wouldn’t need public assistance. And, she said, permanent residents are generally barred from getting public assistance for five years.

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