Earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security issued a final rule that will make it harder for low-income immigrants to legally come to the United States, and more difficult to stay here once they’ve come. Very soon, immigrants who use certain safety programs to get through hard times will have that counted against them when they apply for a visa or for a green card.
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. These changes will force immigrant families to make terrible choices, and many are already refusing help they desperately need to put food on the table and take care of their health so they can stay in America.
Changes to the “public charge” test
Anyone seeking to come to the United States, or anyone already here legally seeking to stay here permanently with a green card, 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 screening 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.
The new rule will expand the programs that can be counted as negative factors. In addition to cash assistance, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), use of public housing or a Section 8 housing voucher, and adults getting health insurance through Medicaid will all count as negative factors when applying for a visa or green card. The other broad factors (age, health, skills and education, and financial resources) will still be considered as well. The key change here is the addition of new negative factors that could tip the balance out of an immigrant’s favor.
In addition to this rule, it is expected that a second rule about public charge will be proposed later this fall. This one will apply to the deportation of immigrants who are already in the country and participate in safety net programs while here. Since this rule has not yet been proposed, we don’t know exactly which programs will be included, but we expect it will be similar to the rule that was finalized earlier this month.
What does this mean, really?
Unless a federal court intervenes (several states and organizations have brought lawsuits), immigration officials can begin using the new, expanded negative factors to screen individuals beginning on October 15 of this year. Immigrants who are participating in SNAP, housing programs, or Medicaid (adults only) after October 15 may have that participation considered as a negative factor in their application for a new visa or a green card.
However, these new factors won’t apply to all immigrants. Current green card holders seeking citizenship and refugees, asylum seekers, victims of trafficking and domestic abuse will not be subject to these new standards. For immigrants who will face the public charge test, only their participation in the safety net will be considered – their U.S. citizen children and other family or household members who are not included in the application are still free to participate in any programs they are eligible for without penalty.
The real effect of this rule is fear, and it’s already making life harder for immigrant families
These new rules, and the confusion about which programs count and which do not, has made many families afraid that any help in these areas may be counted against them. We are already seeing families refusing help they need because of this fear. Restore Hope Ministries, which offers food and rental assistance to families in Tulsa, shared a story of a family that 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 dropped last year, after 10 straight years of increasing participation for this group, amidst uncertainty about what would be included in the final rule. 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. Rather, it means that more families are going hungry. The rules about who can access this program haven’t changed, so it’s most likely that this decrease in families seeking help is due, at least in part, to this long-rumored rule change.
This chilling effect that we are already seeing may become 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 $53,325 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.
This rule change will change the face of immigration in America and the nature of our safety net
The new rules regarding who can come to America, and who can stay in America, will contribute to the fundamental alteration who we are as a nation. This change, and other actions taken by the current Administration, will make it harder for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free to find a place in this country, and we will all be worse off for the loss of the contributions they could make to our country.
It will also significantly change the nature of our safety net. By making these anti-poverty programs unavailable to some, we are making them less effective for us all. Our safety net programs work, and their benefits extend beyond the individuals who access them. We all see health benefits from increased access to immunizations and routine health care. Society and the economy improve when everyone is healthy enough, and well-fed enough, to work and participate in their community. Safety net programs are a key part of our society, and it’s in our best interest to make sure that anyone who needs them can access them without fear. This new rule does exactly the opposite.