Proposal to limit legal immigration spurring some to opt out of food, health programs

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Las Vegas in February 2016. Photo by Gage Skidmore | Flickr

Immigrant families in Arizona are opting out of food safety programs and public health clinics visits out of fear and confusion over a new proposal by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intended to curb legal immigration. It’s a complex rule and different versions of it have been leaked since early 2017, creating confusion and leading to a chilling effect which advocates warn could leave families and children in the U.S. more hungry and uninsured.

The DHS plan would expand the criteria it uses to determine whether an immigrant will likely become a “public charge.” The government already denies admission to the U.S. or permanent residency to people likely to become a public charge, meaning they’ll rely on the government as their main source of support. The rule change will broaden that definition to anyone who is likely to receive one or more public benefits.

Drafts of the changes were first reported in February 2017 and DHS officially published the rule change in October of this year.

Generally speaking, immigrants without green cards are ineligible for public benefits. This includes both those here legally, such as those with visas, and those who are undocumented. However, any children they have who are U.S. citizens are eligible.

According to the Association of Arizona Food Banks, between March 2016 and March 2017, there was a 25-percent decline in the number of legal permanent residents (who have a pathway to citizenship) who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

“We believe people stopped participating in SNAP out of fear of jeopardizing their immigration status,” said Ashley St. Thomas, public policy manager for the Association of Arizona Food Banks. The group obtained that figure from the Arizona Department of Economic Security through a public records request, she said.

St. Thomas added that fewer families are enrolling in the reduced or free meals program for their school-aged children.

“Anecdotally, our child/youth outreach team has learned from districts in Pima and Maricopa Counties that fewer families submitted (National School Lunch Program) applications in the 2017/18 academic year than in years past,” she said in an email. “Children who live in SNAP households are automatically enrolled in NSLP, so that could be contributing to the decline, as well.”

Under the new proposal, participation in the NSLP won’t be considered in a public charge assessment, and immigrants who are already permanent residents would not be affected by the rule change (unless they leave the country for more than six months).

The Arizona Alliance for Community Health Centers, which has a network of 160 sites across the state, helps eligible families enroll in public benefits. Erika Mach, grassroots coordinator with the AACHC, said its centers have also seen the chilling effect of the proposed rule and it could lead to an increased number of uninsured people in Arizona.

“We have experienced families cancelling or skipping their appointments with our eligibility workers and healthcare providers. This could very well have a negative impact in our health public,” Mach said. “It may result in individuals forgoing preventive services, such as well-child visits, routine check-ups, immunizations, cancer screenings and many other services.”

A public comment period for the rule change is open until Dec. 10 and then DHS will issue a final rule at some point after that, following a review of the public comments.  

Analysts say this broadening will significantly reduce legal immigration, and prevent many currently-eligible immigrants from getting a green card and or certain visas to enter the U.S.

The change would have a “disproportionate effect on women, children and the elderly, and a shift away (legal immigration) from Latin America and towards Europe in particular,” according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

What counts in the public charge test?

Currently, receipt of two cash assistance programs are considered by the government in its public charge assessment: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income. Long-term institutionalization is also considered.

Under the new rule, the following programs will be added to the public charge test:

  • SNAP
  • Medicaid
  • Section 8 housing assistance
  • Public housing
  • Medicare Part D

Using any of those public benefits constitute a “heavily weighted negative factor” in the new public charge assessment, in addition to having no current or recent employment and a medical condition that will interfere with the person’s ability to work or support themselves.

The rule change favors high-income earners since a “heavily weighted positive factor” would be households that earn over 250 percent of federal poverty guideline — or $62,750 for a family of four in 2018 (slightly more than the median income of $61,372).

Besides use of these programs, the government also considers other factors in its assessment such as age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills.

Who is and is not covered by the proposed rule?

The proposed rule would apply to:

  • People seeking to come to the U.S. from abroad on immigrant or non-immigrant visas;
  • People seeking to become lawful permanent residents from within the U.S.; and
  • People within the U.S. who hold a temporary visa and seek to either extend their stay in the same non-immigrant classification or to change their status to a different nonimmigrant classification.

This rule would not impact groups such as:

  • Refugees and asylees;
  • Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas;
  • Nonimmigrant trafficking and crime victims;
  • Individuals applying under the Violence Against Women Act; and
  • Special immigrant juveniles.

In general, lawful permanent residents can’t be denied U.S. citizenship for lawfully receiving any public benefits that they’re eligible for, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that grants immigration documentation.

Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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