U.S. immigrants feel 'chilling effect' of Trump-era benefits rule

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 9 March 2022 10:00 GMT

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to the media during his meeting with immigration crime victims at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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A year ago, the Biden administration disavowed Donald Trump’s controversial policy, but many low-income migrants are still forgoing welfare benefits for fear a claim could hurt their immigration status

- Rule disavowed but immigrants still fear benefit claims

- Immigrant families forewent pandemic aid, survey finds

- Biden administration proposes new 'fair and humane' rule

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, March 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Ivette Sosa of Arizona and her family still keep a close eye on what they put in the shopping cart. Like many undocumented immigrants, her parents decided to forgo food stamps - fearing a claim could hurt their prospects of attaining legal status.

It is a year since the Biden administration disavowed a Trump-era rule that sought to expand the welfare benefit claims used to assess applications for "green card" residency permits, but the policy's chilling effects are still being felt.

"There is a domino effect that this was creating," said Sosa, a 20-year-old college student, whose parents are eyeing possible residency in the future.

"I saw it as kind of a target on low-income immigrant families specifically," she added.

For two decades, U.S. guidelines had said immigrants likely to become primarily dependent on direct cash assistance or long-term institutionalization at public expense - so-called "public charges" - should be barred from legal permanent residency.

But Trump's policy expanded that to anyone deemed likely to receive a wider range of benefits including the Medicaid healthcare program, housing and food assistance for more than an aggregate of 12 months over any 36-month period.

Multiple courts had ruled against the policy before the Biden administration pulled the plug on it, but rights campaigners say, a year on, many low-income immigrants still fear claiming benefits or even seeking public hospital care.

It is "one of many enduring effects" of the Trump administration's "anti-immigrant policies", said Laurie Ball Cooper, legal director for Ayuda, a non-profit group.

"It was part of such a concerted effort to exclude people and harm people ... that of course its effects endure longer than the rule itself survived," she said.

Ken Cuccinelli, a former top immigration official in the Trump administration, denied that the rule was anti-immigrant.

"Ordinary Americans still believe that people who want to come here (through) our immigration process should stand on their own two feet - we shouldn't pay taxpayer money," he said.

When the administration proposed the rule in 2019 as part of its broader agenda to curb immigration, Cuccinelli said the policy was in line with American values of "self-sufficiency."

'I WAS AFRAID'

A month after the Biden administration moved to rescind the benefit rule, Chandramohan, a 53-year-old who lives in Queens, New York, migrated to the United States from India.

He needed medicine to control his diabetes, but was wary about receiving care in a hospital for fear of getting deported.

"I was afraid that because of (the) public charge I might be jailed," Chandramohan, who declined to give his last name, said through a translator.

In a report issued earlier this year, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) found that the change in administration was not enough to eliminate immigrants' fear of accessing public benefits.

One immigrant said they were aware that the rule had been rescinded but that "people still think it isn't safe."

"People will tell you, 'Yes, but you never know when (the rule could) come back,'" the immigrant told researchers.

While advocates for immigrant rights blasted the Trump rule as an attack on the poor, it still has strong support among Republican leaders.

The U.S. Supreme Court last month heard arguments in a case brought by about a dozen state attorneys general battling to defend it.

Biden's Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed last month what it called a new "fair and humane" public charge rule that would avoid penalizing people for seeking medical care and other services.

It cited estimates that Trump's policy likely caused 2.1 million essential workers and household members to forgo Medicaid and 1.3 million to forgo food stamps.

Since the Biden administration reversed the rule, various public bodies have been informing immigrant communities about the change to reduce confusion, officials said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services "is committed to ensuring that immigrants and their families ... are not deterred by confusion or fear from obtaining access to important government services," said agency spokesperson Matthew Bourke.

During the time the measure was enforced, the government issued only several denials of admission under it, according to court filings, all of which have since been reversed.

'WE COME TO WORK'

Still, advocates say many immigrants are still wary about accepting public benefits – even among those who are not necessarily seeking permanent legal residency.

As the pandemic hit the U.S. economy from 2020, nearly half of families who needed state aid did not apply due to concern about their immigration status, found a survey released in December by the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition.

Three-quarters of immigrant families were unaware the rule had been reversed in March, the survey found.

"This lingering chilling effect was exactly what they intended," said Maryland State Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, who is among those who has battled the Trump administration in court over the rule.

"I can't think of anything more awful than telling people who need public benefits that they shouldn't use them."

Hugo Gallardo, 52, who is originally from Mexico City, lost his job at a restaurant early in the pandemic and ultimately decided to accept unemployment benefits.

"I had no choice," said Gallardo, adding that he had feared becoming homeless or having to beg to survive.

Now in New York City, and considering getting back in line for a green card, Gallardo said immigrants were not coming to the United States to abuse the system.

"We come here to work, and the money that we earn is well-earned," he said.

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(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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