How the New Public Charge Rule Would Create More Problems…And Solve None

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Last month, the Administration made public a new proposed policy, broadly expanding the forms of public assistance counted when making a “public charge” determination for those applying for permanent residence (green card) status.  Though the proposed rule has changed from the initial leaked drafts earlier in the year, the fear the administration has stoked is already having a significant effect with a number of immigrants already leaving many safety net programs—even those not included in the final proposed rule.

There are two dangerous pieces of misinformation about this rule that are causing the most harm. First, the proposal only adds the use of specific benefits to public charge determination. Second, that determination is only used for the individual applying for permanent residence, not entire households. Put another way, a child using Medicaid or a sibling using SNAP won’t be held against someone applying for a Green Card, so long as the person applying isn’t using those benefits. For more information about the specifics of the policy change, read this FAQ by Protecting Immigrant Families.

Still, the Administration is stoking fear in the immigrant community with this policy change. As a result, it will harm both children eligible for healthcare and nutritional benefits and adults who put off applying for permanent residence or citizenship because of misinformation.

Maria* of Lexington, South Carolina is a prime example of this. Maria is a green card holder and eligible to become a U.S citizen. She came from Mexico with her partner 15 year ago and had a special needs son born in the United States. Unfortunately, she is now a single mother and raises her son alone.

Despite having a full-time job, Maria is unable to cover the costs of her son’s medical needs. Because of the uncertainty of the new policy and the fearful atmosphere created by the Administration, Maria believes she must choose between applying to become a citizen—the only way she can guarantee she will never be deported and separated from her son—or having Medicaid for her son’s severe medical needs. Because she fears the government will use the Medicaid assistance against her in earning her citizenship, she refuses to apply.

No mother should be led to believe she has to make such a heartbreaking decision.

Immigration opponents say this fear is a positive development as it will deter future immigration, but there is no evidence to support this thinking. When people come to the United States, they aren’t looking for free benefits. Most immigrants are fleeing political or economic hardship, looking to build a better life for themselves and to raise a family in a society that protects their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Though hardline rhetoric may decrease immigration in the short-term, people will continue to migrate to this country so long as we embody those values, while other countries deprive their citizens of similar opportunities.

Take Ferdinand* and Christina* of West Columbia, SC for example.

Ferdinand and Christina came to South Carolina 15 years ago, fleeing from Castro’s Cuba. They are both green card holders and have a son who was born in the United States. Ferdinand and Christina want to become citizens, so they can’t be separated from their son and can build a prosperous life that would have been impossible under the communist dictatorship they fled.

Ferdinand and Christina do not receive insurance through their employment. They cannot afford to pay for private insurance or go through the ACA because of the co-pays and the annual deductible. Medicaid would provide much needed healthcare for their son that they cannot afford any other way.  But they fear that receiving benefits for their son would prevent them from successfully acquiring citizenship.

Or take Lucia*, of Spartanburg, SC as another example.  She migrated to the US from El Salvador in 1989. At that time, El Salvador was going through a deadly civil war, and living and working in El Salvador had become difficult and extremely dangerous. Her family was going hungry and had many other unmet needs. She thought she could find a better life in the United States

Today, Lucia is a single mother to two U.S.-born children. As a low-income, green card holder she uses Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for her two U.S-born children. Lucia has not wanted to apply for citizenship because she has heard of people being denied for being a public charge. She recently applied to be a citizen but is afraid of how this will be affected by her family’s use of benefits.

Proponents of the policy-change believe this is a good thing. They think that immigrants are abusing the system or free-riding off American social spending. They think that putting more pressure on immigrant families will force them to leave the United States for their countries of origin or deter future low-income immigrants from coming to the United States at all.  This thinking isn’t based in reality.

For many immigrants, returning to their country of origin is not an option. Whether they have minimal remaining family ties or less economic opportunity in their former countries, changes in public charge policy won’t create a choice between staying and leaving the United States, but between applying for certain public benefits—primarily for children—or applying for permanent residence status.

Immigrants like Christina, Ferdinand, Maria or Lucia didn’t come to this country to be on Medicaid, but to flee violent circumstances and build a better life. By scaring them into believing this false choice, they either delay full citizenship or risk the health of their children. This choice is impossible for any parent.

The consequences are even worse at the societal level. We should encourage immigrants to become citizens or to get green cards to minimize the chances of deportation and family separation. Indeed, the fear of deportation is often a barrier between immigrant communities and the rest of society.

Because many immigrant households have mixed statuses—some family members undocumented, some documented, some green card holders, and some citizens—they’re more likely to fear interacting with law enforcement out of fear of deportation and family separation. Instead of going to and cooperating with civil authorities to confront problems with crime, public health, and other issues facing every community, these communities risk growing more recluse and slowing their integration into greater society.

Any society that fears interacting with its government, whether it be with public benefits or law enforcement, will be vulnerable to crime and trapped in poverty, regardless of ethnicity or documentation. By scaring immigrants into not applying for permanent residence or citizenship, the Administration is thus needlessly trapping more people in poverty and maintaining a heightened tension between immigrant communities and the rest of society.

This fear-mongering and radical policy-making is unproductive. It will only increase poverty, hunger, and division across America. It won’t solve any of the substantial problems in our broken immigration system or even achieve the outcomes its advocates support. If the Administration truly wants to reform the system to revitalize communities across the country, it will abandon this harmful, un-American policy and pursue bipartisan reforms with congress, updating our immigration system for the 21st century.

*names have been altered to protect this person’s identity and privacy