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‘Public charge’ policy chills immigrants

A rally for immigrant rights in San Francisco. (Photo, Eddie Hernandez, via Shutterstock)

In two 5-4 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court – one in late January, the other on Feb. 21 — the high court affirmed President Donald Trump’s effort to change long-standing  policy and punish immigrants who obtain public services by denying them green cards and a path to citizenship.

The new policy directly affects a relatively small number of immigrants.

But those who provide services to immigrants and those who advocate on their behalf say the change has a chilling effect on the  greater immigrant community, including those who have become naturalized citizens. The new rule went into effect on Feb. 24.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, the immigrants impacted by the rule change cannot legally access many of the services covered by the rule

Written by Trump adviser Stephen Miller, the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds policy, known as the “public charge” rule, allows officials of  the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to use an immigrant “alien’s age, health, income, education and skills, among others, in order to determine whether the alien is likely at any time to become a public charge.”

In short, if a certain class of immigrants taps into certain public services they can be denied a Green Card and a path to citizenship.

The rule specifically applies to a narrow group of people – non-citizen immigrants who do not currently possess a Green Card, are not refugees,  and are not Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients,  victims of crime or human trafficking, or those who have sought asylum

The key services targeted by the rule are: Cash-assistance programs, including Social Security Insurance, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Federal Public Housing and Section 8 assistance and Medicaid.

Exceptions to the latter are those under 21, pregnant women, women who have given birth within 60 days and emergency services.

According to the National Immigration Law Center, the immigrants impacted by the rule change cannot legally access many of the services covered by the rule. Many of these services – such as SNAP, Section 8 and Medicaid – already face deep funding cuts in Trump’s most recent federal budget proposal.

The public charge rule directly impacts a small portion of the country’s immigrant population and identifies programs that most of the targeted population cannot use. But little effort has been made by the administration to explain the rule — who it impacts, what it focuses on and the process used to determine whether or not someone is a “public charge.

Immigrants fear that they will be denied a Green Card, have their current Green Card revoked or be stripped of their citizenship.

Harsh rhetoric by the president, his advisers and those tasked with  putting the rule change into practice has raised fears among people not affected by the rule – including immigrants who became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Perla Flores – a program director at Community Services, a non-profit human services agency serving South Santa Clara County and San Benito County – says, “Many individuals chose to remain in the shadows. We have already seen the impact on underprivileged families who prefer to go hungry before accessing food programs due to fear of the public charge rule.”

Others have reported that immigrants – including U.S. citizens – have stopped reporting crimes to or cooperating with law enforcement, kept their children out of school, and refused to see a doctor when sick. These are activities not targeted by the rule, but these immigrants fear that they will be denied a Green Card, have their current Green Card revoked or be stripped of their citizenship.

Karen Schulz, the managing attorney of the Step Forward Foundation, a Morgan Hill non-profit that provides legal services to people of low income, said,  “We’ve had several clients call us in the last couple days regarding the impact on them, even when they are statutorily exempt from the public charge rule (such as a person seeking political asylum or a victim of crime). Already, these clients have been repeating misinformation from others about the rule that we have to correct.”

“For months now, clients have already been asking our staff if they should change their employment, housing, or use of health care under the public charge rule.” — Luz Buitrago

A March 2019 survey conducted by the Urban Institute found that most immigrants receive their information about the public charge rule from news reports, word of mouth  and social media. The survey also found that “Interviewees rarely mentioned people seeking professional legal advice. When they did, most reported that lawyers advised against participating in safety net programs. Interviewees also rarely mentioned consulting professionals in community-based organizations or government offices.”

Immigration rights organizations have been working to counter the misinformation and the refusal of the Trump administration to publicly clarify the rule change.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and CLASP (The Center for Law and Social Policy) are using their “Protecting Immigrant Families, Advancing Our Future” campaign to inform immigrants as to what the public charge rule really says and who it impacts.

Lideres Campesinas, a California-based farm workers organization that works with immigrants, is working with Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the Immigration Legal Resource Center (ILRC) to “remove the burden of misinformation” from their clients by increasing training and networking.

But even with sustained outreach, countering the chilling effect is difficult.

“For months now, clients have already been asking our staff if they should change their employment, housing, or use of health care under the public charge rule,” says Luz Buitrago, regional director of advocacy for California Rural Legal Assistance.

She said CRLA urges people “to come and seek advice about this rule and about other legal rights they have, including making sure they are paid fairly and that their workplace is safe. Accessing free legal services will not put people at risk of being flagged as a public charge.”


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