Immigrant rights advocates urge comments against proposed ‘public charge’ rule
Ildra Medreano, an immigrant seeking asylum, tries to hold back tears as she sits with her son Kenneth, foreground, at a Catholic Charities facility not long after they were reunited, July 23, in San Antonio. | Eric Gay / AP

As the Dec. 10 deadline approaches for public comment on the Trump administration’s proposal to expand “public charge” stipulations, putting immigrants at greater risk when they seek to upgrade their status, a broad coalition of organizations is stepping up its work to mobilize public comment opposing the intended rule change.

The Protecting Immigrant Families coalition of over 1,550 organizations says more than 68,000 public comments have been received so far toward its 100,000 goal. PIF is urging immigrant rights supporters to submit their comments via its website.

If the proposed new rule goes into effect, programs like Medicaid, Section 8 and other forms of public housing assistance, food stamps and Medicare’s low-income subsidy for prescription drugs would be added to the current criteria for who is apt to become a “public charge.” It would be much harder for low and moderate-income immigrants using these programs to get a green card or to extend or change their temporary status.

Currently only cash assistance and a need for long-term institutionalization at public expense are said to show someone is apt to become a public charge.

Changes would not be retroactive, and only specifically listed programs would be included. Refugees, asylees, and people in other protected categories would not be affected.

But immigrant rights advocates say the proposal is already having a chilling effect, with immigrant families dropping out of vital benefit programs.

Earlier this month, the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley held a seminar on how the proposed changes would affect hunger, health, and the economy in a state with the world’s fifth largest economy and nearly 40 million people. Over a quarter of Californians are immigrants—among them some 3.3 million permanent legal residents—and nearly two and a half million children are U.S. citizens with a non-citizen parent.

The seminar focused on the consequences of adding CalFresh (California’s food stamps) and MediCal (the state’s Medicaid program) to the “public charge” list.

Tia Shimada, director of programs at California Food Policy Advocates, said federal authorities “must read, count, and consider every comment before finalizing the rule,” and even at that point, a new rule can’t take effect until 60 days after it is finalized.

Among best practices, she said, at least a third of the comment should be in one’s own words, comments should be submitted in English, should focus on programs specifically mentioned in the rule but not mention programs not specifically listed, or suggest how to fix the rule.

Shimada said that besides the aid programs, the proposed rule would also include much higher standards for personal circumstances. Factors like being a child or a senior, having limited education, limited English proficiency, a low income, or a poor credit rating would be seen as negative factors, while an income of at least 250 percent of the federal poverty standard, or nearly $63,000 a year for a family of four, would be viewed as a positive factor.

Noting that the proposed changes were published as the administration intensified its anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions before the midterms, Shimada said they “run counter to our core values as a nation of immigrants, and here in California, counter to our values as a state that was built upon and thrives on the contributions of immigrants.

“We can think about the depth of the harm in three different ways,” she said: the consequences for those legally affected, the fear and confusion felt even by many people not directly affected, and the effect on entire communities when access to programs is withheld.

“The proposed changes would make us a sicker, hungrier, and poorer country,” she said.

Ninez A. Ponce, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Health Policy Research, said about one in 10 Californians are enrolled in the CalFresh food assistance program—most of them below the federal poverty line despite nearly half having at least one source of earned income.

Calling CalFresh “an investment in health, productivity, and stability for children and families,” Ponce said the program “lifts hundreds of thousands of Californians out of poverty,” adding that food assistance cuts food insecurity by up to 30 percent for families with children.

Laurel Lucia, director of the UC Berkeley Labor Center’s health care program, said research indicates that loss of federal benefits for CalFresh food stamps and MediCal (California’s Medicaid) would cost between 7,600 and 17,700 jobs as the effects ripple through the economy, with health care and food industry jobs affected the most.

In addition, she said, the state and local governments could lose as much as $150 million in revenue from various taxes.

California is not alone; immigrant rights and community advocates all over the country have been joining the outcry.

Hunger Free Vermont is leading that state’s drive to push back against the proposed rule, together with the University of Vermont Medical Center, the Vermont Medical Society, the Vermont Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Community Health Centers of Burlington, Vermont Foodbank, and the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, and U.S. Representative Peter Welch have issued statements of support, with Welch calling the proposal “a scare tactic by the Trump administration to make immigrant families feel they must choose between feeding their families or staying together.”

New York state officials worry that the federal proposal would force many immigrants, including those not affected by the rule, to go hungry and do without vital medical care as they stop using benefits like food stamps and Medicaid.

They say the state could lose as many as 25,000 jobs if the proposal comes into effect. As much as $2.2 billion in direct federal funding could be lost, and another $3.6 billion could disappear as economic effects ripple through to grocery stores and medical facilities

The Arizona Basic Needs Coalition says that, already, fewer immigrant families are seeking help with housing, health, and food, even if the rule wouldn’t affect them. A leader of coalition member, the Children’s Action Alliance, told a recent press conference the proposal is causing many families to avoid any kind of government assistance.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.