In Contra Costa County, Medi-Cal applications are going untouched. In Santa Clara County, nonprofits are fielding questions from anxious clients wondering if using public benefits could cost them a chance for a green card. And across California and around the nation, immigrant families have stopped signing up for food stamps, according to the American Public Health Association.
Even though a proposed Trump administration policy targeting legal immigrants who use public benefits hasn’t taken effect, its impact already is being felt, say local officials and nonprofit groups.
“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 (U.S.-born) kids are going without health insurance for fear of the parents being flagged.”
At issue are proposed revisions to the “public charge rule,” which analyzes how likely an immigrant is to become dependent on government help. The U.S. 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 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.
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, D.C., 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 3 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.”
The concept of public charge dates back at least to the Immigration Act of 1882 and refers to anyone who is “primarily dependent” on government assistance, meaning more than half their income comes from public assistance. The issue doesn’t affect undocumented immigrants, because they generally aren’t eligible to receive federal benefits.
The new policy would also characterize “negative” factors — such as limited English skills or the lack of a high school diploma — that would increase the likelihood of someone becoming a public charge to their community.
Since his election, President Donald Trump has cracked down on immigration, fulfilling a campaign promise to get rid of “open border” policies, reform legal migration rules and keep out immigrants who rely on public assistance.
But that doesn’t mean Trump is seeking to push out legal immigrants with policies like his public charge rule, said Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for Progressives for Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that advocates for stricter immigration policies.
“It’s hard to make the case that he’s opposed to legal immigration,” he said. “Even though his rhetoric may indicate it, the reality is that legal immigration has proceeded along the same lines as it did under Obama.”
The Department of Homeland Security said last week that the proposed public charge rule is meant to “implement the law” and “promote immigrant self-sufficiency.”
“Federal law generally requires that immigrants be able to support themselves financially and not be dependent on a public benefit, like welfare,” a DHS official said in a statement.
About 22.7 million non-citizens and their U.S.-citizen family members are in families that receive public benefits, according to the Migration Policy Institute, which estimated that up to 4.5 million people could un-enroll from public assistance programs in the decades to come if the new rule is implemented.
Santa Clara County would be least affected in the Bay Area by the public charge rule, the Institute’s data shows. But local nonprofits are still worried.
“One of the questions that I hear often is… ‘Will coming here for services affect me if I’m trying to adjust my (immigration) status?'” said Eunice Hernandez, an organizer with Sacred Heart Community Services in San Jose, which provides an array of resources to low-income residents, such as food, educational programs for kids and their parents and rental assistance. “I think the policy is just going to exacerbate the situation because folks are going to have to choose between meeting a basic need and adjusting their status.”
With a federal public comment period on the proposal set to close Dec. 10, local and national nonprofits and public health leaders have expressed fear the new policy will scare qualifying immigrants away from getting the assistance they need.
“People are afraid,” said Jeanne Batalova, a policy analyst at the institute and an author of the report. “They don’t understand the rule, so what it means is that immigrant families don’t enroll in the programs or they disenroll.”
Some people have even stopped using public libraries, according to Batalova.
“The fear has been rippling through these communities,” she said.
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