By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
“This is going to be a disaster for all.”
King County Public Health Director Patty Hayes calls a proposal, from the Trump administration to tighten the existing rules for legal immigrants who use medical or food assistance, “inhumane.”
Hayes spoke at a Sept. 25 news conference in a packed room at International Community Health Services (ICHS) in the Chinatown-International District.
She was one of five local advocates who described the harmful impact of the 447-page rule, titled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” — which was released quietly on Saturday, Sept. 22. Under the proposed redefinition of “public charge,” immigrants may lose their right to obtain permanent residence (green card) if found to be using certain government benefits, including non-emergency Medicaid, supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP or food stamps), Section 8 housing assistance, and subsidies under Medicare Part D for prescription drugs.
In a news release, the Department of Homeland Security said the new rule would “ensure that those seeking to enter and remain in the United States either temporarily or permanently can support themselves financially and will not be reliant on public benefits.”
An estimated 1 in 4 of Washington state’s 1.6 million children is either an immigrant or has a foreign-born parent. And nearly 80 percent of them are children of color.
ICHS serves more than 30,000 patients, and half of them are immigrants. Aliya Haq is the nutrition services supervisor at ICHS.
“The Trump administration thinks it will save money by declining services,” she said.
“But it will end up costing more taxpayer money because these immigrant families will end up in the ER.”
Haq recounted a story of a man who came into a clinic with a sick 2-month-old grandchild, begging to be removed from all programs, out of fear that he and his family will be denied green cards and be deported.
That’s just one example. Hayes offered more: new moms saying they don’t want services, including baby formula, pregnant women declining nutrition services, and parents removing health insurance policies for their children.
“Immigrants may be a small percentage of people using the services, but we are a big county and the numbers are shocking in terms on human impact,” said Hayes.
“Would you want to choose between safeguarding your family’s health and safety, or safeguarding your family’s ability to stay together?” asked Christina Wong, director of Public Policy and Advocacy at Northwest Harvest.
By federal law, everyone seeking to become a permanent resident of the United States is already required to prove that they are not likely to become a public burden.
Currently, for legal immigrants seeking green cards, the government defines a “public charge” as a person who has received cash income maintenance or been institutionalized for long-term care paid for by the government.
But the Trump administration would broaden the definition of public charge from primarily depending on, to merely using a government program. And the government has never before considered the use of other public benefits, like assistance for food.
“Food is a basic human right. This proposed rule will force families to make an impossible choice between food or staying together.” Wong called the proposal “mean-spirited and ill-conceived” and people are being punished just because they are asking for help when economic times are tough.
Northwest Immigrant Rights Project offers legal assistance, advocacy, and education to immigrant communities throughout Washington state. Executive Director Jorge Barón said, “This is just to inflict pain on immigrant communities,” and he called it “another attack on low-income families and their children, seniors, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people of color.” He also voiced suspicion about the timing of the proposal’s release — on a Saturday and less than two months before the midterm elections.
Stephen Miller, the top immigration adviser to President Trump, has long believed that being tough on immigrants is a winning tactic for Republican candidates. He has pushed hard for the new rule during the past several months.
Even though the public charge test does not apply to refugees or asylees, news of the proposed rule has stoked fears among those communities as well.
“Immigrants have asked service providers to discontinue their benefits because they would rather take their chances with hunger than with Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” said Roxana Norouzi, deputy director of OneAmerica.
Barón and other advocates want to get this message across to immigrants: don’t panic or do anything drastic.
“This will not affect your immigration case, even if this became law down the road,” he said. “Talk to an immigration attorney before withdrawing from benefits like food assistance.”
Hayes echoed that sentiment.
“Anyone using food, healthcare, or housing programs — please don’t stop now. We want you to be well.”
The final version of the proposed rule is expected to be published in the next few weeks. After that, the public will have 60 days to file comments. Advocates vow to rally public comments from Washington state residents and organizations in order to slow down or block the rule.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.