NEW YORK – When she was struggling financially this past year, Laura Peniche traveled all over Denver to get free food from churches to feed her three young children. She was too scared to apply for government food assistance.
When she was offered a chance a few weeks ago to get a reduced-rent apartment through a city program, she turned it down. Instead, she stretches her budget to pay several hundred dollars a month more to rent somewhere else.
It was all because of rumors she heard that immigrants seeking green cards would be rejected if they had ever used government aid programs.
Now the Trump administration has proposed a rule change that would codify some of those rumors, and immigrants and their advocates are scrambling to figure out what it means if it takes effect. They worry that the measure is a back-door attempt to restrict immigration by low-income people and that it could make immigrants fearful of using social services that they or their families need.
Peniche wonders if she needs to do even more, like avoid using a local government-funded preschool program for the youngest of her children, all American-born.
“Since it’s government help, I feel like I can’t use it,” said Peniche, 34, who came from Mexico as a teen and has protection from deportation under DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She still has hopes of someday getting a chance to apply for permanent legal residency, so she doesn’t feel like she can risk using any kind of government aid, even for her kids.
“I feel like any little thing ... would be used to keep me from being a resident,” she said.
The administration’s proposal is centered on whether an immigrant seeking a green card is considered a “public charge” dependent on the government.
Until now, the guidelines in use since 1999 referred to someone primarily dependent on cash assistance, income maintenance or government support for long-term institutionalization. The Department of Homeland Security wants to redefine a “public charge” as someone who is likely to receive public benefits at any time. And the definition has been broadened to include SNAP or food assistance, Medicaid, housing assistance or subsidies for Medicare Part D.
Refugees or asylum seekers would be exempt, and the rule would not be applied retroactively, the government said.
An average 544,000 people apply annually for a green card, with about 382,000 falling into categories that would be subject to this review, according to the government.
The revised rule “seeks to better ensure that applicants for admission to the United States ... are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their family, sponsor and private organizations,” the proposal said.
According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, low-income immigrants who are not yet citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults. In fact, many immigrants are ineligible for public benefits because of their immigration status.
In general, immigrants are a small portion of those receiving public benefits. For example, non-citizen immigrants make up only 6.5 percent of all those participating in Medicaid. More than 87 percent of participants are native-born.
The same goes for food assistance, where immigrants make up only 8.8 percent of recipients, and over 85 percent of participants are native-born.
The rule change and other immigration restrictions are part of a push to move the U.S. to a system that focuses on immigrants’ skills instead of emphasizing the reunification of families, as it does now. A draft leaked in March proposed even bigger changes that would have affected entire immigrant families, not just the individual applying, as this proposal does.
Once the rule is published in the federal register, it will be followed by a 60-day public-comment period. If the rule is enacted, it would take effect 60 days after that.
“There are a lot of questions of how this will play out in practice,” said Jackie Vimo, policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center. For the last two decades, she has told immigrants that there would be no immigration consequences for receiving housing subsidies, health care or food stamps. She can’t say that anymore.
“Ultimately, for many people, they’re just going to say, ‘This is too complicated – I am just going to get off all the benefits,’” Vimo said.
Vimo said the plan also hurts immigrant communities by discouraging people from using resources aimed at helping them. At the end of the day, she said, taxpayers will wind up covering the cost of individuals who seek hospital care without insurance they were eligible for.
“People are making life-and-death decisions based on this,” she said.
They’re people like Gloria, a Houston woman who spoke on the condition that she would be identified only by her first name to avoid endangering her pending immigration case. Married to a U.S. citizen, she has DACA protection and an application in process for a green card.
She also has a 2-year-old American-born son with an enlarged kidney that requires extra care. She doesn’t have health insurance, but her son does under Medicaid, the government program for children from low-income families.
Even though the proposed rule focuses on the individual applying, she worries that signing up her son for public assistance is a risk.
“I don’t know [whether] to cut my kid’s Medicaid,” Gloria said in a phone interview. For “just a regular checkup, it wouldn’t be as expensive. He has two other specialists that he sees, and so we decided to get a little help.”