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Monday Last Day to Comment on "Public Charge" Changes

Monday is the last day to comment on the proposed rule changes regarding immigrants who may be considered by the government to be “public charges.” The idea that immigrants should be more or less self-sufficient if they come to America has been a part of the country’s immigration policy for decades. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rules out applicants who are likely to become “public charges”—people who are “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”

That provision hasn’t been particularly noteworthy in the past because immigrants and their sponsors have to show signs of financial stability before they’re given green cards, so few who enter through conventional means are likely to become public charges. The new rules expand the notion of “public charge” in non-intuitive ways and make it far easier to be seen by USCIS as dependent. The change would make receiving—not relying on—government assistance a disqualifying act, and this week USA Today’s Alan Gomez reported on a Palestinian who entered the United States legally in 1997 foregoing possible FEMA assistance and Small Business Administration low interest loans to rebuild his house and car wash business in Panama City after they were destroyed by Hurricane Michael. He’s concerned that accepting that assistance will cause him to be seen by USCIS as a public charge and cost him his green card. 

“I’m afraid to accept anything,” he said. “The only assistance I ever received was the (Fulbright Scholarship). If I applied to FEMA for help, would that be considered government assistance? That’s why I’m hesitant, I’m scared to even explore that.” 

As Gomez points out, the asylum issues at the border get media attention, but this change will quietly have a much greater impacts since it affects more than 380,000 legal residents currently in the United States. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Dr. Douglas Jacobs spelled out what the proposed changes will mean for his patients:

If the proposed rule is adopted, programs that are crucial for my patients’ health, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (once known as food stamps), housing assistance and Medicare Part D (the prescription drug benefit), would all count toward the designation of a public charge.

Accordingly, my pregnant patient from Cameroon may have to decide whether becoming a permanent resident is more important than providing her unborn child with the nutrients required to live a long life. My patient from the Dominican Republic may have to decide whether becoming a permanent resident is more important than taking the medication that will strengthen her bones and prevent a hip fracture.

Their fears are rooted in more than just a sense of vulnerability. A Mexican businesswoman discovered that the U.S. government considered her a public charge and denied her entry into the country to see family because in 2016, she briefly used CHIP and Medicaid because she was experiencing pre-gestational diabetes. That assistance was available to her on a tourist visa, but the fact that she used them—even temporarily—was held against her.

According to Gomez: 

Among the stated reasons for the proposed change is that it will inspire an increase in “self-sufficiency,” feeding into the larger narrative that those who use these programs become dependent on the government. This notion is both factually baseless and harmful to my patients and their families. These public assistance programs often provide the gateway not only to health but also to economic self-sufficiency.

Across the country, green card holders who view American law as a labyrinth designed to trip them up are choosing to put their status and that of their family ahead of their health and well-being. Research published in 2012 found that access to food stamps during childhood led to a significant reduction in obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes in adulthood.

Those disturbed by this expansion of the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant agenda should comment while they still can. This policy addresses a problem that doesn’t exist, as The Los Angeles Times pointed out and puts the lives and livelihoods of immigrants who have tried to live up to their end of the American bargain at risk. 

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