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Doctor Omolara Uwemedimo, a pediatrician at Cohen's Children's Medical Center, poses at her office in New Hyde Park, New York, U.S., February 13, 2018. Picture taken February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton(reuters_tickers)
By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Abosede Akingbade Thomas, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, was ordered to bed rest in 1981 during a difficult pregnancy, she followed her doctor's advice to sign up for food stamps and another aid program providing support to pregnant and nursing women.
At the time, as now, the kind of assistance she and her husband received was not generally held against foreigners if they later applied for permanent residence.
But under a draft policy being considered by the Trump administration, people like the Thomases who relied on the government to get through tough financial times could find it more difficult to stay in the United States permanently.
Without that few months of help, Akingbade Thomas says, and without her income as a nurse, her husband would likely have had to quit his engineering studies to take on another job.
"We had to pay for food, it was a need that I had to eat," Akingbade Thomas, 65, said.
Soon after the birth of her daughter, Akingbade Thomas became a U.S. citizen, and was able to sponsor her husband, who had come to the United States from Nigeria on a student visa, for a green card.
The Department of Homeland Security draft policy, first reported by Reuters last week, would allow immigration officers reviewing applications for permanent residency to consider whether foreign-born people seeking to live in the United States sought or received a range of public benefits for themselves or their dependents, including American-born children.
The government could factor in use of public benefits, including food aid, home heating assistance, subsidies for health insurance premiums, and government pre-school programs, when deciding if a person is likely to become a "public charge." Such a determination would bar them from becoming permanent residents.
The proposal has been both criticized and praised. Supporters say self-sufficiency is an important criterion when considering immigration decisions and that concerns about the draft rule were exaggerated.
A DHS spokesman declined to comment on the draft policy beyond a statement last week that the Trump administration seeks to be "good stewards of taxpayer funds."
Omolara Uwemedimo, the Thomases' eldest daughter and the baby Akingbade Thomas was carrying at the time she received government aid, is now a 36-year-old pediatrician who treats poor children in New York. She is a critic of the draft plan.
As a child growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, Uwemedimo excelled academically, graduated from high school at age 15 and won a scholarship to cover her undergraduate and medical school tuition. At age 22, she received her medical degree.
Many of Uwemedimo's patients have parents who were born in other countries, she said in an interview. Over half her patients are covered by Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program, government benefits that help low-income families with medical costs.
Uwemedimo said the new rule could force parents to decline health insurance and food aid for their American-born children, for fear of losing their shot at permanent residency. Shunning government help, she says, would "push a tremendous number of families into poverty."
Uwemedimo said her own family's experience taught her some of the hardships immigrants can face. "Ultimately that transition, even for people who came as skilled workers, it was still quite difficult," she said.
President Donald Trump, who took a hard line on illegal immigration during the 2016 election campaign, has also sought to curtail legal immigration. He has advocated ending a visa lottery program and some kinds of family-based immigration.
Critics of the draft rule believe it would effectively make it harder for lower- and middle-income people to immigrate.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favours immigration restrictions, said she does not believe the draft rule intends to deter people from accessing services.
"It's to make sure that the United States is not giving out green cards to people who don't qualify because they're not self-sufficient," Vaughan said.
Robert Rector, an expert on welfare programs and immigration at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said cases such as the Thomas family - educated immigrants who rely for a short time on public benefits - are not typical of the burden on U.S. taxpayers posed by immigrants generally.
Though Rector supports the draft regulation's aims of reducing the burden of immigration on taxpayers, he said a more efficient way of doing so would be changing the law to limit the number of low-skilled immigrants who can be admitted.
"The solution is not to bring them into the country and then say, 'Oh we're going to monitor every month of food stamps you get,'" he said. "The proper policy is to make a distinction at the front door."
Cornelius Thomas, Uwemedimo's father, is grateful he did not have to worry about jeopardizing his chance at permanent residency when his family accepted government aid for about six months. After earning his engineering degree, he worked two jobs for years. His wife worked as a nurse and now runs a home health care business.
It was the only time the family received public benefits, Cornelius Thomas said.
"The amount we paid back, it's more than what they gave us," he said, referring to taxes they paid for decades. "We never stopped working."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati, editing by Sue Horton and Grant McCool)