November 26, 2018; East Bay Times
In August 2018, NPQ wrote of the impending crisis that could be precipitated by the administration’s planned implementation of policy changes around the use of government benefits by immigrants with legal status. Participation in programs like SNAP, housing subsidies, or Children’s Health Care (CHIP) could put a legally admitted immigrant’s potential of receiving a green card and ultimately becoming a citizen at risk. Even with the policy not yet in place, fear is spreading in immigrant communities.
At issue are proposed revisions to the “public charge rule,” which analyzes how likely an immigrant is to become dependent on government help. The US already has a public charge rule in place, but a new Department of Homeland Security policy would expand the types of taxpayer-funded benefits that are used to determine if an immigrant is too dependent. If so, the immigrant can be ruled ineligible for a green card or to renew a temporary visa.
Under the administration’s proposal, the definition of public charge would be expanded to include non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, Medi-Cal [California’s Medicaid program] and housing assistance programs. Cash benefits, such as welfare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are already part of the current definition of public charge.
Experts warn that a significant “chilling effect” could keep thousands of qualifying immigrants—even those who would not be affected, like naturalized immigrants or current green card holders—and their relatives from using benefits due to fear or confusion. That could have devastating consequences for low-income people who need health care, food stamps, or other social services as they integrate into a new country, experts said. Healthcare providers and nonprofits say they’re already seeing an impact.
With 12 days left in the comment period (until December 10th), the implementation of this policy change is not assured. But it is feared that many immigrants will refuse benefits and services in order to be assured a “place in line” for a green card and eventual citizenship, even at the cost of family health and well-being.
About 41 percent of non-citizens in the Bay Area live in families that use at least one of the four public benefits considered under the new policy, according to data released by the Migration Policy Institute earlier this month. The nonpartisan think tank, based in Washington, DC, crunched Census Bureau data to estimate how many people would be affected by the change.
Contra Costa County would see the largest impact in the Bay Area. There, an estimated 49 percent of non-citizens living in families use at least one of the benefits that could be considered in the proposed policy, up three percent from the current policy. Many low-income immigrants have migrated to the county in recent years in search of cheaper housing, according to Kathy Gallagher, director of Contra Costa County’s Employment & Human Services Department.
“We’re afraid of what would happen if people lose that support or that access,” said Gallagher. “It can become a health risk to people in the community. They’re not going to be accessing Medi-Cal or Medicaid. They’ll be avoiding going to emergency rooms….We could have an outbreak of communicable diseases, children not getting vaccinated, a lack of prenatal care.”
As chaos erupts on the border with Mexico and armed forces try to keep asylum seekers from entering the United States, how will these policies—which say that if you use benefits like healthcare or food or housing subsidies, your status may be threatened—reflect on immigrants who are legally here? Clearly, some are withdrawing from programs already, even when doing so is unnecessary and may put their lives at risk.
“Not only are folks not signing up, but they’re proactively going to health centers and asking to be removed from these programs,” said Alvaro Fuentes, executive director of the Community Clinic Consortium of Contra Costa and Solano Counties, which oversees several health clinics in the area. “Some (US-born) kids are going without health insurance for fear of the parents being flagged.” How many women will forgo prenatal care? How many children will bypass immunizations?
In short, this policy, even before it is in place, has created an underclass of legal immigrants who live in fear of taking anything from the government they so want to become a citizen of. Sadly, some are even afraid to borrow a book from the public library.—Carole Levine