Pilar Marrero, Ethnic Media Services
Immigrants who fear using certain public services because of a new "public charge" rule change issued by the Trump administration should not rush into leaving their families without assistance because, in the long run, this could be counterproductive to the family's health and even legal status, activists and attorneys said Thursday.
The sweeping rule change, scheduled to take effect Oct. 15, will allow the government to consider the use of food stamps, housing subsidies and Medicaid to claim that an immigrant is a public charge on his or her application for residency or change of visa.
"We recommend talking to an immigration attorney, preferably from a community organization, before deciding whether to use or stop using any public service," said Amanda Lugg, director of the African Services Committee, a human services organization based in Harlem, New York.
Lugg, like other health leaders, has begun training her staff to advise the community on what steps to take for the new changes. In the face of the tremendous fear expressed by so many immigrants regarding this change, she recommends that they evaluate very carefully whether or not it is in their best interest to stop using services that can be crucial to maintaining the health of their families.
"If you have a medical condition and not have health insurance, or are disabled by chronic illness, the best thing you can do for you and your family is to regain health, find a job, and get ahead," Lugg said. "By the time you have to apply for your green card, the government of this country may have changed or the public charge regulations may no longer exist.”
While battling the new regulation, activists have launched an educational campaign to counter fear in the affected community.
During a teleconference organized by Ethnic Media Services and the National Immigration Law Center's (NILC) Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign, health care leaders and legal experts agreed that the regulation "has the potential to cause enormous damage to the health of immigrant and minority communities."
They indicated, however, that the community should not act hastily in abandoning public programs, although they reported that unfortunately this began to happen even before the regulation was officially announced.
"Since the preliminary regulation was announced last year, our staff at health centers were able to feel the fear of the community and see customers returning their WIC checks or wanting their names removed from our databases," said Lisa David, president of Public Health Solutions in New York City, an organization that provides social services to vulnerable communities.
WIC, a food program for women and children, is not even included in the rule announced on Aug. 12, but every time the issue of public charge was in the news or a step in that direction was announced, "the number of people requesting the help dropped in our clinics."
The activists emphasized that many programs are not included in the rule and that, in any case, it is not retroactive, it does not apply to those who applied for a change of visa or residence before October 15 of this year or to Medicaid, SNAP or Section 8 benefits received before that date.
They also recalled that none of this will affect people who already have legal residency who seek citizenship, naturalized asylum seekers, or survivors of domestic violence or crimes who have received a T or U visa, for example.
The final "public charge" regulation was announced on August 12 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and it expands the programs and factors that will be considered when deciding whether an applicant for a visa or green card has been or may become a public charge.
"Previously, only cash assistance programs counted in defining who could be a public charge," explained Connie Choi, Director of NILC's Immigrant Family Protection Campaign. "The new rule now includes the use of other programs such as SNAP, Section 8 (housing subsidies) and Medicaid, among other factors such as health, age, income, and so on."
Children under the age of 21 who use Medicaid as well as pregnant women and new mothers who access this health program are exempt from the rule.
Meanwhile, these groups are battling legally and politically against Donald Trump's government to minimize the effect of the new "public charge" regulation, delay or impede its implementation.
There are now half a dozen lawsuits against the rule, and a lawsuit filed by NILC on August 15, just three days after the final rule was issued, requests the suspension of the rule based on constitutional violations and damage to the public health system.
"The regulation would dramatically reform our nation's legal immigration system, adding a wealth requirement focused on racial animus," the activist said. "To pass this test, only a family of four making more than $65,000 annual income would be safe. We estimate that 26 million families will be affected.”
Los Angeles Congresswoman Judy Chu said the executive rule contradicts previous U.S. Congressional decisions not to include non-cash services in the public charge immigration test and pointed out that this is one more of the Trump administration's attacks on immigrants.
"This regulation puts a price tag on entry into this country, and at the same time it will make it harder for immigrant families to progress in this country," Chu said. "It is ironic that the goal is to separate families, since immigrants ask for less public aid if they have families to support them. Staying together has been and continues to be a guarantee of success for immigrant families. "
Chu has introduced a bill (HR 4422) with 92 co-sponsors that would prevent the use of federal funds to implement this regulation.
Thu Quach of Public Health Solutions, an Asian and Pacific community-focused health organization based in Oakland, said all the work the groups are doing to educate the community, including providing immigration legal advice, "takes resources away from health care."
"All of this diverts resources that would have to be used in patient care and has an effect on the health system, the community and the organization," Quach said.