Opinion: How a Draft Federal Rule Could Hurt Immigrant Families

(Photo by Peg Hunter, Creative commons license)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security may soon make it very difficult, if not impossible, for many family members of U.S. citizens who are seeking to gain permanent residence in the U.S. to do so. A proposed rule, not yet issued for public comment but leaked some months ago, enumerates a laundry list of cash and non-cash public benefits, the use of which could weigh heavily in determining the “admissibility” of thousands upon thousands of green card petitioners. Some might even find that simply because their U.S.-born son or daughter has been receiving health care via a government-funded program, that will count against them in their bid to become permanent residents. And because the new rule pertains to safety net benefits that citizens as well as non-citizens may have tapped, it could affect millions across the country who live in “mixed status” families. If adopted, the damage to families could unspool over many years.

New York City officials are trying to allay the concerns of residents who’ve heard about the proposed rule. At a recent meeting at a Bay Ridge mosque, Bklyner reported, New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Bitta Mostofi was asked by one attendee whether it was true that welfare recipients would not be able to get a green card or apply for citizenship. In a city whose officials have worked assiduously to make sure that every person eligible for benefits from food stamps to housing assistance to health care signs up for those benefits, the concern is not an idle one.

“Right now, nothing has changed. Any benefits that you are receiving, you should still receive,” Mostofi said. But she added: “If they announce that they want to change the rule, it is so important that the city, that organizations and leaders send letters to the federal government to say why this change will be very bad… for communities, for our families, for our city.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo in early August said the proposed plan is “ugly, it is cruel, and it is shamefully un-American.” NYS Assembly member Andrew Hevesi (D.–28th district), chair of the Social Services Committee and 71 New York State Assembly members wrote in a June 8 letter to Donald Trump: “These proposed regulations would be vindictive toward immigrants in the United States who are lawfully working through our legal system to attain resident status.” The letter noted that 704,000 children currently receiving Medicaid or Child Health Plus benefits in the state could be affected by the rule.

Ellis Island

Since more than a century ago, when officials turned away sickly immigrants coming through Ellis Island, the U.S. government has sought to ensure that immigrants not become a burden on taxpayers. But current law stipulates that immigration officials may consider only two things – cash assistance for income maintenance and institutionalization for long-term care at government expense – in making their decisions. The proposed changes, like many sought by the Trump administration, seek to dramatically change by administrative fiat longstanding law and practice.

The rule proposes that a much broader range of public services, with a three-year lookback period, be weighed as having a potentially negative impact during the application review process. Among those items: nonemergency Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, WIC, Section 8 housing vouchers, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, the earned income tax credit, and financial assistance provided through the health insurance marketplaces established under the Affordable Care Act. The new rule would cover all individuals applying for legal permanent residence via family-based petitions. (Refugees, asylees, and some other categories of immigrants are not affected.)

Immigrant advocates, public health officials and others worry about the “chilling effect” the proposed ruling may have on the use of critically important health and other services by immigrants and citizens in “mixed status” families. The Migration Policy Institute, in a study published last month, stated that nationwide, “an estimated 5.4 million to 16.2 million of the total 27 million immigrants and their U.S.- and foreign-born children in benefits-receiving families could be expected to disenroll from programs.” Researchers at MPI base their estimates on responses following changes in welfare rules in 1996, which prompted many individuals, even though they remained eligible for benefits, to nonetheless decide not to seek them.

In addition to the estimates of disenrollment, there are already about 7 million individuals who could benefit from health, nutrition and other benefits and are not using them right now – and are unlikely to ever do so. “This has the potential to completely alter and affect welfare rules across the country,” said Ernie Collette, public benefits lawyer at the Mobilization for Justice. “People will likely remove their children from Medicaid, which is the largest benefit…that and food stamps.”

Raising awareness

Community groups are trying to raise awareness, without raising fears. At a recent information session held by New York’s African Communities Together (ACT), community members peppered presenters with questions, said Khadim Niang, civic organizer for ACT. “One questioner said: ‘I’m on food stamps, how will this affect me?'” For now, said Niang, his organization can’t do more than offer detailed information. ACT’s presentation was drawn from resources provided by the National Immigration Law Center, which has spearheaded a campaign called “Protecting Immigrant Families” to spread the word about the proposed rule. [Fact sheets, research studies, community education resources, and state-specific materials are available in several languages]. “We’re waiting to see what happens,” ACT’s Niang said. But, he added, ACT is assuring community members that “your voices will not be silenced.”

Anecdotally, says Claudia Calhoon, director of health policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, there are reports that individuals receiving benefits through the government’s WIC (Women, Infants and Children) supplemental nutrition program are taking their names off their children’s benefits, keeping only their children enrolled in the program. Available data for the WIC program runs only through May of this year and isn’t disaggregated based on the immigration status of the recipient. But over the past nine months, the number of women enrolled in the program has dropped 7 percent nationwide. Participation is trending down as well for the broader food stamp program, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Yet, troubling as the proposed rule is, it should not be surprising.

It not only conforms with the nativist sentiments of the Trump administration, but aligns neatly with the objectives of opponents of government programs. The prospect that millions, citizens and non-citizens alike, might for years to come suffer the consequences of poor health, nutrition and shelter if the rule is implemented seems not to matter to the policymakers in Washington, D.C.

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