Silvia C. has a job cleaning houses, but she still relies on government assistance to help keep her two daughters safe and healthy. Her 8-year-old has asthma and, without benefits, Silvia is not sure she could afford her child's medication.
When Silvia, a Washington resident, noticed Spanish-language news reports about the Department of Homeland Security's proposed changes for immigrants participating in some government programs, her initial reaction was one of fear. The revisions, which would apply to visitors and immigrants from abroad as well as those petitioning for green cards or trying to extend their stays on nonimmigrant visas from within the United States, would not affect most lawful permanent residents such as Silvia.
But so much confusion has surrounded the proposal that immigrants across the country have still questioned whether their families should access government benefits intended to cater to the most vulnerable. For some, the answer has been "no," even before changes to the so-called public charge rule have gone into effect and when the policy would not directly apply to them.
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"A lot of these families that rely on these different public programs to meet their basic needs may not be accessing the services that they need," said Hamutal Bernstein, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and the lead author of a new report on the first national data that captures the scope of "chilling effects" connected to the so-called "public charge" policy debate last year.
Immigrants have long had to prove they will be self-sufficient in the United States by demonstrating that they will not become a public charge. But a proposed policy change under the Trump administration would dramatically expand the definition of a public charge to include people who access noncash benefits such as food stamps (SNAP), most of Medicaid and public or Section 8 Housing. Proposed last fall, the possible rule change marks one of a number of policies related to legal immigration that President Donald Trump has rolled out as most of America concentrates on migration at the border.
"This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers," former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at the time.
Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said the revised public charge rule will likely rank among the administration's policies with the broadest impacts on immigration in this country, as tens of millions of people could be affected if it is implemented.
Already, there have been ramifications from the policy debate. During a nationally representative survey last December, roughly one in seven adults in immigrant families reported that they or a family member forwent noncash public benefit programs because they feared they or their family might be disqualified from obtaining a green card as a consequence. Among low-income immigrant families, that number jumped to about one in five, according to new research from the Urban Institute released on May 22. Adults in families with children under 19 years old were also disproportionately affected.
Even in households where the proposed public charge ground of inadmissability shouldn't apply, families were on high alert. 9.3% of adults where all foreign-born family members were naturalized citizens also experienced or witnessed chilling effects on their family's use of benefits in 2018, as did 14.7% of adults where all foreign-born family members had green cards. Meanwhile, refugees and asylees have been among those concerned about taking advantage of government programs, advocates say, even though they're explicitly exempt from the proposal.
"I think people are just trying to be as safe as possible," said Connie Choi, NILC's Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign field manager and strategist.
The most common program that adults in immigrant families said someone in their family stopped participating in or did not apply to was SNAP, followed closely by Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. Nearly 17% of adults who reported that their family had not accessed a form of assistance "indicated that the implicated program was specifically Medicaid or CHIP benefits for a child in their family," according to the Urban Institute report.
When Bernstein followed up with survey respondents who had experienced or witnessed these chilling effects, she met a natural born citizen married to a green card holder who was worried about accessing SNAP, even as they were expecting a child; an international doctoral student avoiding assistance to ensure his green card process went smoothly; and a naturalized citizen whose sister had stopped using SNAP, even though she had a green card, because she feared it might affect her citizenship claim.
Silvia worried at first that her 3-year-old U.S.-citizen daughter's benefits might impact her husband's green card petition as he tries to come to the U.S. (the implicated program, WIC, is not among those targeted in the proposed public charge changes, and her concerns represent how misinformation on the topic spread among the immigrant community). She also expressed concerns that accessing benefits for her family might cloud her own citizenship claim, even though the website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says "lawful permanent residents who subsequently apply for naturalization would not be subject to inadmissibility determinations."
Adults who reported hearing a lot about the public charge rule were far more likely to have family forgo government assistance because of fears about green card disqualifications, according to the Urban Institute report. Bernstein said the data suggests that if the revised rule is actually implemented, increased awareness could lead to even more hesitation from mixed status families around using benefits.
Veronica Hernandez's team at Mary's Center — a community health center that serves the D.C. metro area — fields questions on a daily basis about the proposed changes to the public charge ground of inadmissability, she said. She has watched as parents decide to take themselves or their entire families off of benefits, denying themselves medical care because of fear. When there's a story in the news, she starts getting calls and visits from people asking what they should do.
"We just try to calm them down," she said, "and educate them."