Confusion over New Rules Leads Many to Ditch Public Assistance

A new rule would unfairly target minority immigrants who come into the country legally, immigration advocates say.
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A new rule would unfairly target minority immigrants who come into the country legally, immigration advocates say.
Immigrants are hastily dropping public benefits in response to a federal rule change put forth by President Donald Trump, but many of them don't need to, advocates say. The fear, misinformation and rumors have led to people needlessly giving up food stamps and healthcare assistance.

“People are very scared, and they're misinformed,” said Cheasty Anderson, a senior policy associate for the Children's Defense Fund – Texas. “They're scared of separation or being deported.”

On Oct. 15, new qualifications for the “public charge” rule are scheduled to go into effect. Currently, the rule bars immigrants who cannot support themselves at all from qualifying for permanent residency. The new guidelines stipulate that the use of assistance like Medicaid and food stamps and the likelihood that an applicant will use them in the future be weighed when deciding if an applicant should be approved for a green card.

But the rule only affects green card applications and the applicant him/herself. Permanent residency seekers will not be penalized for family members who use government benefits.

Still, immigrant families are so afraid that they're taking family members, even those with U.S. citizenship, off of Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid, Anderson said.

“Which means children are going to bed hungry, going to school hungry,” she said.

Numbers from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services indicate that roughly 1.8 million children and about 3.5 million Texans are eligible for SNAP benefits and about 3.8 million Texas residents were enrolled in Medicaid in July of this year.

Many of these people are in immigrant and mixed-immigration status families who might be concerned that the benefit usage will affect their immigration status or lead to Immigration and Customs Enforcement turning up on their doorstep, Anderson said.

To combat the fear, Anderson and other advocates are reaching out to as many families as possible and want to make it clear that if you already hold a green card, are applying for citizenship or have no path to green card status, don't worry about this rule change. Immigrant families with children who are citizens will not be penalized for their children's use of benefits.

While Anderson says the outreach efforts are working, immigrant assistance organizations are still hearing from many clients to whom this does not apply.

“If we can't get the information out to enough people quickly enough, then we're looking at a potential public health crisis.” — Cheasty Anderson

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“HRI serves asylum seekers, unaccompanied kids, and victims of crime who qualify for help under the Violence Against Women Act and other humanitarian provisions of our laws,” said Kali Cohn, advocacy director for Human Rights Initiative of Texas in an email. “[B]ecause our clients are applying for humanitarian-based relief, they are exempted from the public charge rule. Even so, we have clients contacting us regularly, worried about how this change could affect their families.”

According to Feeding Texas, the new rules take into account use of: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Section 8 housing assistance and any other federal, state or local assistance. These will only be looked at with applications filed after Oct. 15.

But, the Feeding Texas brochure says, other factors like a job and health insurance can counteract the use of government benefits.

Where the rule gets more strict is in cases of people already living in the United States who want to sponsor a relative from abroad. In particular, it's a concern for a large number of adults from countries in Asia who want to bring aging parents to the country to live with them, said Pooja Sethi, an Austin-based immigration attorney.

She estimated that 60%-70% of her cases involve parent sponsorship. She has heard concern from clients that they will be unable to get care for parents in another country.

But it's important for people to keep applying for green cards and to sponsor relatives, Sethi said. If applications are denied, it may be possible to take legal action, but if applications stop, there's nothing she can do.

“They're [the current administration] trying to use it as a deterrent,” she said.

Although the final public charge rule changes are set to go into effect next week, there are nine pending lawsuits that might result in an injunction or delay the changes taking effect, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Anderson is hopeful that an injunction will come through and that outreach efforts will continue to slow down the stream of people giving up their benefits.

“If we can't get the information out to enough people quickly enough, then we're looking at a potential public health crisis,” she said.