This blog post was co-authored by legal intern Courtney Mendoza .
Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security received comments on its proposal to expand the definition of public charge on inadmissibility grounds to include non-cash assistance programs like Medicaid, SNAP/food stamps, Medicare Part D prescription coverage, and federal housing. Public charge is an immigration term used to assess whether individuals applying for entry to the U.S. or lawful permanent residency status (commonly known as a “green card”) are likely to become dependent on the government as their primary source of support. A total of 266,077 comments were submitted–including one from NHeLP–condemning the proposal for its harmful effects on public health and the U.S. economy. OMB recently completed its review of the final rule, and publication is expected very soon.
Although the rule has yet to be finalized, the proposed language is already causing harm on immigrant families. A national survey from December 2018 found that about 13 percent of adults in immigrant families dropped out or chose not to apply for non-cash benefit programs out of fear of losing their future ability to apply for lawful permanent residency. The survey found an even higher percentage (20 percent) of individuals below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline were also affected. The survey also found that immigrant families with young children avoided the programs more than immigrants without young children, and about 33 percent of adults chose to forego housing assistance out of similar fears.
More recent studies found a correlation between the administration’s anti-immigrant, racist rhetoric and the worsening health outcomes of the Latinx community, which include premature births, cardiovascular issues, anxiety and depression, and sleep problems and stress. Even unaffected programs like Covered California–the state’s health insurance marketplace–have noted significant drops in enrollment among communities with limited English-speaking proficiency and acknowledged the possibility of public charge fears and confusion.
These fears and chilling effects will likely multiply in light of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) own recently proposed rule. HUD’s proposal would prohibit mixed-status families from participating in federal housing assistance programs, as well as requires additional citizenship documentation for those who remain eligible. It forces these families to separate to maintain housing assistance or leave to stay together. Housing instability and homelessness undoubtedly pairs with negative financial impacts and traumatic health consequences–especially for developing youth.
The public charge and HUD rule proposals coerce many struggling immigrants to avoid assistance programs and yet somehow maintain a stable livelihood in efforts to avoid jeopardizing their immigration status. The families that rely on these programs often juggle full-time work and school schedules, as well as primary caretaking responsibilities for other family members. To make matters worse, a potential draft regulation from the Department of Justice that would expand the definition of deportation determinations under public charge is currently under review by the White House.
The administration claims these public charge proposals are necessary to promote independence and self-sustainability among immigrants. However, Congress created these programs to provide a temporary safety net for working families struggling to make ends meet. With deportation concerns added to the administration’s admissibility and housing proposals and hostile media rhetoric, low-income immigrants are further chased away from the very assistance programs that are designed to foster upward mobility for people in poverty. The administration’s web of alarming lose-lose proposals for low-income immigrant families comes at the expense of everyone’s health, housing, financial, and emotional security.