The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is reportedly considering a new policy that would discourage immigrants who are eligible for government assistance from accessing those benefits -- either for themselves or their U.S.-born children.
Last month, Reuters and Vox reported on a leaked draft of a proposed rule that would drastically expand the reasons that DHS can use to deny a green card application to include most kinds of government assistance -- from health insurance to food stamps to housing aid.
If implemented, the rule would also put state and local leaders in a tough spot and undermine many of their welfare programs that go beyond what the federal government offers.
But even in leaked draft form, the Trump administration’s immigration proposals are already scaring immigrant parents from using public benefits, according to a new report.
“We know first and foremost that it has a chilling effect,” says Wendy Cervantes, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), which compiled the report.
Last year, CLASP interviewed 150 early childhood educators and parents in California, Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, North Carolina and Pennsylvania to see how the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policy positions had affected children in immigrant households.
Early childhood education programs reported drops in attendance and applications as well as reduced participation from immigrant parents in classrooms and at events. Both parents and health care providers said there had been an uptick in missed appointments at health care clinics. Parents also told CLASP that they were afraid using public benefits would negatively impact their ability to obtain lawful permanent residence.
The data are still anecdotal, says Cervantes, but it’s an early attempt to assess the nationwide impact of the Trump administration on the health and well-being of immigrant families.
"Our biggest concern is that kids are going to go hungry and they’re going to be losing access to basic health care," says Cervantes. "What I’m really afraid we’re going to see is the creation of a second class of citizen growing up in the U.S. that are going to be a quarter of our future workforce, and what that will mean for our collective future."
There is some historical evidence to support this fear.
In 1996, the federal welfare law reduced immigrants' access to public benefits. One result: For fear of negative immigration consequences, immigrants were choosing not to get their children immunized and pregnant mothers were forgoing prenatal care. (Congress has since increased immigrants' access to benefits.)
News of the leaked rule worries local public health officials who say the policies could hurt anyone living in America.
"A communicable disease doesn’t know if you’re here legally or illegally, with a green card, without a green card," says Colleen Bridger, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. "It’s really in our best interest as a nation to make sure that everybody has access to health services and can be as healthy as possible."
The rule under consideration would make it easier to label an immigrant who is in the U.S. lawfully as a “public charge,” which can be used as a reason to deny them permanent legal residence.
Currently, the federal government can consider someone a public charge if -- among other factors -- they receive long-term care from a government institution or use the family cash welfare program formally known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Under the leaked proposal, legal immigrants can be considered a public charge if they benefit from:
- State or local cash benefit programs
- Government subsidies for health insurance
- Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Federal housing assistance, including rental vouchers
- The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Some educational benefits, including Head Start
The rule also leaves DHS wiggle room to deny green cards for use of "any other Federal, State, or local public benefit program," except for those specifically exempt. Among the exempt benefits would be subsidized child care, foster care, school meals, and emergency or disaster relief.
The rule would not change immigrants’ eligibility for those benefit programs, but it would create a strong incentive not to use them. Immigrants also would not be punished for benefits they used or sought before the new rule went into effect. In 2016, roughly 383,000 people who would be subject to the proposed “public charge” standards had obtained permanent residence while living in the U.S., according to Reuters.
If someone's green card application is denied, it stops the process of becoming a legal permanent resident, and in some rare circumstances, it could even lead to deportation.
In explaining the purpose of the proposal, the leaked document says "the availability of public benefits must not constitute an incentive for immigration to the United States ... aliens in the United States must not depend on public resources to meet their needs."
In fact, the proposal says having an income 2.5 times the federal poverty line would count favorably in immigration applications -- a criterion not included in current federal guidance.
According to the document, homeland security will publish the rule in July, which would kick off a 60-day review process, including an opportunity for public comment.
"This isn’t a final order. This isn’t even a final draft. It’s got a million typos in it," says Michael Fix, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "This could change a lot before this goes public."
However, the proposal is largely consistent with the Trump administration’s recent calls for tighter limits on public benefits and legal immigration.
“I think the deep logic of this rule is to alter immigration flows into the United States and to be a step towards the kind of de facto merit-based legal immigration that the administration is interested in,” Fix says. "And it's another lock on the door to public benefits."
If implemented in its current form, the rule's potential impacts would be sweeping -- not just for immigrant families but also for state and local governments that administer public benefit programs.
It would likely mean new federal reporting requirements for a bevy of programs. It would also force state and local leaders to make difficult choices about whether to discourage certain foreign-born residents from using those services.
"You could make the case that [the rule] overrides state and local preferences," says Fix.
Last year, a leaked executive order outlined a plan to punish legal immigrants by expanding the types of public benefits that, if used by an immigrant, could be grounds for deportation. So far, the White House has not released an official version of that document nor has President Trump signed one like it.
But even news of a possible change in immigration policy can have an effect. In a 2017 survey of 90 local agencies managing WIC, a quarter reported that undocumented parents were refusing services.