Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen NielsenEXPAND
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen

Changes to "Public Charge" Rule Could Leave Millions of Texans Without a Safety Net

Another week, another regulatory change proposed by the Trump administration that could hurt millions of Texans.

This time around, Kirstjen Nielsen's Department of Homeland Security is looking to change the way the federal government evaluates immigrants applying for permanent residence in the United States. If a change to the so-called "public charge" rule goes into effect as proposed in four months, immigrants who've used public services like food stamps, Medicaid or Medicare Part D benefits could see their chances of obtaining legal status downgraded. Previously only receiving cash assistance could work against a residency application.

The change, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities, an Austin-based think tank, could affect millions of Texans.

According to the center, 1.8 million kids in Texas have at least one parent who is not a U.S. citizen. That's a quarter of children in Texas. Of those 1.8 million, 1.6 million are U.S. citizens. Changing the rules for getting a legal residency could cause those kids to "go without needed health care, food, and housing out of fear that meeting those needs will prevent a family member from receiving a visa to enter the U.S. lawfully or earning a green card," the CPPP says.

"This proposal would close the doors to hard-working new Americans who are critical to our Texas economy and our American tradition of family immigration and social mobility," the center's CEO, Ann Beeson, said earlier this week. "Rumors about the rule have already frightened too many Texas families into dropping access to health care or food for their children, in hopes that forgoing basic needs is the price they must pay for their family’s ability to live together in the U.S. lawfully."

Scaring away those who would otherwise seek health care puts everyone at risk, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

“Any policy change that makes it harder for people to get access to the benefits to which they are legally
entitled risks increasing the prevalence of communicable and chronic disease and could negatively
impact the health of our most vulnerable, including pregnant women and infants,” Jenkins said.

The proposed change could also deter those in the U.S. illegally from seeking legal status out of fear that their low income or use of government benefits could lead to rejection. Many undocumented immigrants could simply choose to remain in the country illegally at risk of deportation.

"This proposed expansion of what should be considered an immigrants' likelihood of being 'public charge'
is yet another attack on our legal immigration system and a deterrent against low-income immigrants
seeking legal status," said Kate Vickery, the executive director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative. "We are deeply concerned that this change will result in families choosing to forgo legal permanent residency when faced with the difficult choice of providing care for U.S. citizen family members on the one hand, and legal status on the other."

According to Nielsen, the proposed changes are needed to make sure those allowed to legally immigrate to the United States can support themselves.

“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” she said in September as the rule was being drafted. "This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

Wednesday, the proposed new rule was published in the federal register, starting a 60-day public comment period. Once the comment period is over, the new rule will become effective after 60 more days, barring any changes.

The "public charge" edit follows the proposed addition of a citizenship question to the census earlier this year as federal administrative changes that could lead to fewer Texans getting the federal and state services to which they are entitled.

If a citizenship question ends up on the final 2020 census, advocates fear many immigrants in Texas will avoid census takers, leading to the state's population being under-counted. A 1-percent under-count, according to the CPPP, could cost the state as much as $291 million in federal funding. Multiple federal lawsuits are underway in Texas and around the country to keep any citizenship questions off the census.

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