When rumors that the Trump administration would block immigrants using public benefits from getting green cards began in late 2017, an HIV positive woman visited the African Services Committee in Harlem. She said she was going to stop taking medication that kept her viral load down because it was only available through a government program for low-income people.
She felt fine, she said, and her priority was reuniting with her children, who lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If she couldn’t get a green card, they couldn’t come to the US.
People who use this federal benefit to get HIV medication are not actually penalized in the final version of the public charge rule, which instructs immigration officers processing green card applications to determine the likelihood that an immigrant would use public benefits.
But the rumors leading up to its finalization on Tuesday have already impacted tens of thousands of immigrants in New York City, disrupting lives and forcing people into a choice between using vital benefits and a chance to reunite with their families.
“The date of implementation really means nothing in terms of educating the community, folks coming in, anxious about whatever benefit they are on,” said Amanda Lugg, director of advocacy at African Services Committee, which assists recent arrivals from the African diaspora. “The job is done.”
The 837-page public charge rule is set to take effect on 15 October, though by Friday it was challenged in four lawsuits from 17 states, Washington DC, two California counties and a coalition advocacy groups.
The rule has been assailed as a radical attack on legal immigration that targets working class immigrants. Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized it: “The rule looks like one more attempt by White House adviser Stephen Miller to make America a country of no more immigrants.”
The acting head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinelli, told reporters the rule would encourage “self reliance and self sufficiency”.
In interviews this week, Cuccinelli also suggested rewriting the famous Statue of Liberty poem welcoming the tired, poor and huddled masses to US shores to say: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Under the rule, a public charge in now defined as a person likely to use benefits such as public housing and food stamps. For example, an immigrant father married to a US citizen and with US citizen children would automatically be penalized in his green card application if he used food stamps for one year in a three year period.
A taxi driver who was a doctor in their home country and is paying for classes to have valid medical credentials in the US, while also living in federally subsidized housing, could also be penalized.
“Working class immigrants are a vital part of our shared prosperity and have contributed to this nation since its inception,” said Marketa Lindt, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “This rule will not only punish individuals for seeking basic needs and put families at risk of separation – it will do irreparable harm to American businesses and communities.”
As written, many public benefits are not part of the rule, including emergency medical assistance, disaster relief, the national school lunch program, Children’s Health Insurance Program (Chip), food pantries and homeless shelters.
But Alice Bufkin, director of policy for child and adolescent health at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, said the scope of programs it does penalize people for using has wider effects.
“When parents don’t have housing, when parents don’t have nutritional support for the whole family, when parents are struggling – that impacts children, that impacts families, that impacts entire communities,” Bufkin said.
An estimated 304,000 low and middle income New Yorkers, including citizens and green card holders, would be discouraged from participating in public benefits because of the rule, according to a December 2018 report by New York City. This includes 72,000 US citizens’ children and 29,000 people with disabilities.
That chilling effect is estimated to further deepen the poverty gap and slow New York’s economy. The city estimated that 20% of people who use food stamps, cash assistance or both could suffer an annual loss of $235m in benefits, which would in turn reduce economic activity in New York by $420m.
“Our best case scenario is we get this stopped entirely through litigation, or even get it delayed, but we’re still going to have a chilling effect,” said Carlyn Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer at the Chinese American Planning Council, the nation’s largest social services provider for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Cowen said seniors the group assists have tried to de-enroll from food stamps and that parents are afraid to put their children in city-funded daycare, even if those things wouldn’t be held against them.
Now that the rule has been finalized, advocates are continuing their public education campaign and working with foreign-language media to provide the city’s immigrants with accurate information. They are also focused on linking people to immigration experts who can piece through each individual case
But Cowen said the climate of fear in immigrant communities during the Trump era has meant its resources are actually underused. “In the mind of a community member that is fearful of the government, a government seal is a government seal, so it’s really critical that community-based organizations say ‘no, New York state is here to protect you, New York City is here to protect you.’,” Cowen added.