This past weekend, the Trump Administration expanded its attack on immigrant communities by threatening access to basic safety net programs including food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid and Section 8 Housing Vouchers. In a draft posted on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) website, the Trump Administration proposes to change the rules governing “public charge,” which determine how receipt of public benefits might impact an individual or family’s admissibility to the United States or ability to become a lawful permanent resident. The Administration’s purported rationale for this proposed rule change is to “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that [immigrants] are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.” Legal Aid joins hundreds of legal services and civil rights organizations throughout the country in opposing these draconian changes that not only target will harm the most vulnerable individuals and families in our communities but also harm society as a whole – especially socially and economically.
Under current law, only the receipt of cash benefits implicates the “public charge” doctrine, and even then, only in some circumstances. The proposed rule, which has not yet been published for public comment, broadens this doctrine to include many non-cash benefits, including Medicaid, SNAP and Section 8 Housing Assistance. Moreover, it would expand the doctrine to affect individuals seeking lawful permanent resident status through family-based petitions. The rule would not affect individuals who have lawful permanent resident status and are attempting to become citizens. Nor would it affect certain groups of immigrants, notably asylees, refugees and some survivors of domestic violence.
Even with these groups exempted, however, implementation of this policy will lead to more hunger and less access to stable housing and health security among our immigrant neighbors. In addition to further complicating the already complex systems of public benefits delivery and immigration and naturalization, if implemented, this rule will further dissuade eligible families from getting these essential benefits. More than ten million children have a non-citizen parent; the vast majority of these children are citizens. Even if a family or individual’s immigration status or ability to become a citizen would not be jeopardized by the receipt of public benefits, experts worry that the fear of such jeopardy will result (and has already resulted) in millions of families and individuals’ living with less housing, economic and health security because they are too afraid to apply for public benefits. Not to mention that implementation of this rule will further increase the stress and fear that many immigrants are already experiencing.
Legal Aid has already encountered undocumented parents (without any viable path to any kind of immigration relief) who are afraid to seek benefits for their citizen children because they fear connections between local and federal governments – and thus deportation. These are children who are legally entitled to benefits and in desperate need of them to meet their basic human needs. Any policy that jeopardizes the health and well-being of millions of children based solely on their immigration status, or those of their parents, cannot be in our country’s best interest.
The District government deserves credit for supporting its immigrant communities. In the area of public benefits, the local Immigrant Children’s Health Program and the DC Health Care Alliance ensure that access to health care is not denied due to immigration status. But if this policy change becomes law (as looks likely), the District will need to take even greater care to ensure that otherwise eligible immigrants and their citizen children do not lose access to benefits as a result of agency misinformation or administrative policies. Legal Aid is committed to working with the District to protect vulnerable families and children regardless of their immigration status, even as it works in coalition with other advocates nationwide to urge the Trump Administration to adopt more humane policies that do not damage millions of children and their parents because they were not born in this country.