March to Batavia,” Carlos Fernandez

August 19, 2019; Colorlines

The Trump Administration recently released an updated “public charge” rule, which effectively favors wealthy (and often white) immigrants for citizenship. The new rule could also deter millions of immigrants already in the country from accessing public benefits. As attacks on immigrant communities continue to escalate, the courtroom has become a focal point in the fight for immigrant justice.

As the October 15th date when the new public charge rule is expected to take effect approaches, more and more lawsuits are being filed to fight the change. The New York attorney general recently filed a lawsuit in conjunction with the attorney generals of Connecticut and Vermont. Thirteen other states have also filed suits against the new public charge rule. In addition, a broad and diverse coalition of advocacy groups from California have filed a separate suit. These suits, minimally, will surely delay actual implementation of the rule well past October 15th.

The idea of a public charge rule of some sort itself is not new, however. The nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that the federal “public charge” law dates back to the late 1800’s. However, the new proposed rule would significantly alter the definition of whether someone is considered a “public charge.” The report explains that “longstanding federal policy considers someone a public charge if they receive more than half of their income from cash assistance programs,” such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and long-term care through Medicaid.

The report explains that the new rule could alter this longstanding definition in two ways. It expands the list of programs considered in the public charge criteria to include “health coverage through Medicaid, food assistance through SNAP (food stamps), housing assistance, and Medicare Part D low-income subsidies.” Additionally, the new rule would give more discretion to immigration officials to determine whether the individual “received, or is likely to receive, modest amounts of any of these benefits.” This is in contrast to the previous rule, which looked at whether benefits make up more than half of an individual’s income. Age, education level, and income will also be factored into whether someone is considered a “public charge.” Observers are also concerned that bias could impact decision making as immigration officials are given more discretion.

Not only could this rule change alter who is allowed to come and remain in this country, it could also deter millions of immigrants who are eligible for benefits from using them out of a fear for repercussions. The Urban Institute recently released a report that signifies the new rule could prevent immigrant families from applying for benefits out of fear and confusion. Even before the ruling has taken effect, they found that “about one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported “chilling effects,” in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a non-cash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card.” The numbers increased for immigrant adults in low-income families. Many healthcare professionals are concerned about how the rule could impact the overall health in our communities, particularly children. Another report from the Urban Institute cites that there are 6.8 million citizen children living with noncitizen parents who could be impacted if the rule is implemented. There are numerous stories of parents giving up food and medical benefits in order to remain eligible for a green card.

The Administration has defended the new rule by claiming that they are upholding longstanding American values, and that they “want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient.” This is in light of the fact that second-generation children of immigrants experience significant upward mobility compared to their parents. They also “contribute more in tax revenues than they take in government benefits.”

NPQ has regularly covered the ongoing attacks of immigrants since President Donald Trump’s election. Whether it’s the travel ban or the separation policy, immigrants of color are particularly targeted and vulnerable. By using language ability and income as factors in determining eligibility, the rule intentionally favors wealthier immigrants from English-speaking countries. What all of these policies have in common is the desire to create fear. The increased threat of deportation has resulted in increased stress for immigrant families.

Those of us who want to be honest about US history know that the pull yourself up by the bootstraps story is just a myth. Your zip code is actually one of the greatest predictors of your outcomes in the United States. Under the surface, when you look at all of these policies together, what these policies are really intended to do is to make life so miserable for immigrants that they just want to leave. This is an important time to stand in solidarity with our immigrant community members and to use our resources to challenge these policies. The new rule could have a profound impact on the face of America, and would tarnish our soul for years to come.—Benjamin Martinez