No family should be punished for accepting help when they need it

UPDATE (8/12/19): This week the Trump Administration is expected to submit a final rule on public charge that is set to take effect in 60 days. The Department of Homeland Security noted that, “While some commenters provided support for the rule, the vast majority of commenters opposed the rule.” Over 260,000 public comments were submitted to the DHS. You can read OK Policy’s public comment regarding the proposed rule here.

Bad luck or hard times can hit any of us, and when it happens we should all be able to seek and accept help to meet basic needs while we work to get back on our feet.  But for many Oklahoma families, that assurance of compassion and help may soon disappear. Recently proposed changes to federal immigration rules would make it harder for families to put food on the table, get medical care when they need it, pay for prescription drugs, and find a safe place to live.

The “public charge” test

Anyone seeking to come to the United States, or anyone already here legally seeking to stay here permanently, must demonstrate that they, or someone sponsoring them, can provide for their family so they won’t become dependent on the government. Current immigration rules consider a broad set of factors when considering applicants – age, health status, skills and education, and financial resources are just a few.  Any use of cash assistance programs (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is also considered a negative factor.

Now the Department of Homeland Security has proposed changing this rule to consider a more expansive set of anti-poverty programs. Under the proposed rule, participation in SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, prescription subsidies through Medicare Part D, and housing assistance will negatively affect the ability of legal immigrants to stay in the country. This change will force families to make terrible choices, and many will refuse help they desperately need to put food on the table and take care of their health so they can stay in America.

This change will make families afraid to seek help

Though the proposed rule change only includes programs administered by the government, many families will be afraid that any help in these areas may be counted against them. This is already happening. Restore Hope Ministries, which offers food and rental assistance to local families, recently shared a story of a family who needed a little help with the rent. Restore Hope offered them rental assistance – help that would not have counted against them when they applied for permanent residency – but the family refused, afraid that it may mean having to eventually leave the country. As a result, they were evicted and became homeless.

We also know that SNAP participation among immigrant families has dropped this year, after 10 straight years of increasing participation for this group. Data for 2018 shows a 10 percent drop in participation among immigrant families who are eligible for nutrition assistance and have been in the country for less than five years. This does not mean that fewer families need help putting food on the table and are eligible for SNAP. It means that more families are going hungry. The rules about who can access this program haven’t changed, so it’s likely that this decrease in families seeking help is due, at least in part, to the proposed rule change – a proposal that has been rumored to be coming for a long time.

This chilling effect that we are already seeing may be quite large. There are currently over 100,000 non-citizens in Oklahoma living on a low or modest income (below 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $51,950 a year for a family of three).  Any of these individuals could be subject to the terms of this rule change if they seek to change their immigration status in the future. Even if they aren’t planning right now to apply for a new status, they will want to avoid doing anything that may damage their chances in case they change their minds later.

More struggling families will affect us all

This rule change will place a greater burden on already burdened charities and religious organizations. When immigrant families can no longer safely access public programs to get help with basic needs, they may look to charitable organizations for help. But these organization will struggle to meet this increased need, meaning more families will go without help.

This change could also create a public health crisis that would affect us all – when struggling families are unable to access regular medical care, they less likely to get immunizations and more likely to get sick and go without treatment.

Finally, this change is very likely to increase illegal immigration. If we make it harder for people to legally enter the country, and harder for people already here legally to stay in the country – and this rule does exactly that – we make it more likely that people will try to immigrate illegally.

What you can do

The proposed rule change will be available for public comment until December 10. This is your opportunity to make your voice heard and share how this change could impact struggling Oklahoma families. These families are counting on us. Please join us in standing with them.

  • Submit your own public comment. Public comments can shape policy, and the deadline for public comments is December 10. For a quick and simple way to submit a comment, use this easy comment form. Scroll down the form for more information about how this proposed rule would affect access to education, health care, housing, and more. 
  • Tell your friends to submit a comment. Follow the Coalition for the Future of Oklahoma Families on Facebook and Twitter, and use the coalition’s resources when talking to your friends, family, and organizations you belong to. 


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

2 thoughts on “No family should be punished for accepting help when they need it

  1. Your dire predictions about immigrants losing government benefits and being denied permanent status seem to be extreme. Many immigrant families depend on their immigrant communities for help and have purposely shunned meager government assistance. Snap benefits are rarely enough for any families and charitable food pantries are plentiful and generous. Free or cheap clothing is easy to find. Immigrants are hard working and live frugally, and are extremely supportive of their children’s education. They routinely participate in language training and GED programs that are free and accessible to all. Their biggest challenge is health care which puts them into the same situation as citizens in poverty. How about blending doom talk with coverage and acknowledgement of ways in which immigrants succeed /- mostly without any government support.

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