Our work brings us in regular contact with immigrants and non-immigrants alike who lean on the government for support, and then – in most cases – take that assistance and repay it in strides.
Take, for example, an adolescent with behavioral challenges who gets the trauma-informed care they need, which then positions them for long-term independence. Or the teen experiencing homelessness who gets food, shelter and counseling and then graduates high school and goes to college or joins the workforce. Or an immigrant who gets subsidized housing and English as a Second Language classes when they first arrive, to go on to a job and the dignity it brings. Many of today’s taxpayers needed temporary support at one time or another.
We see the success stories – and yes, those who may need longer-term support as well – every day, and it represents everything right about how our nation has historically approached those in need.
What we also increasingly see is the fear in the eyes of those we serve as they contemplate changes to our laws that seemingly make it impossible for them to thrive in the United States and undermine their belief in this country as a place where anything is possible.
The new “public charge” rule is just the latest brick in the Trump administration’s invisible wall, which is intended to reduce the number of legal immigrants by threatening to prevent entry into the United States or withhold permanent residency to low-income individuals, particularly those who need public benefits.
This rule is racist and cruel, sending a message to black and brown newcomers that they are not welcome in our nation. The origins of the rule in fact date back to earlier manifestations of racism, aimed at preventing Asian and certain European immigrants from lawfully immigrating to this country.
But as is the case with so many recent policy changes, the primary threat of this new rule is the fear and confusion it sows. The rule is intended to incentivize immigrants to voluntarily opt out of the life-saving benefits to which they are entitled, regardless of whether such benefits will have any bearing on their likelihood of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
Advocates are often blamed for dramatizing the impact of public policy changes. But there is no added drama here.
We have already heard from many poor, legal immigrants who now live in absolute fear of putting their immigration status at risk, and have begun to dis-enroll from critical, life-saving benefits. Some will go without meals, housing or health care, putting themselves in danger and creating a moral and public health crisis for all of us.
Many of these immigrants are not even subject to the “public charge” test at all or are relying on benefits excluded under the new rule.
Take, for example, the HIV-positive clients we work with who are here legally under Temporary Protected Status and who are already foregoing the critical health care benefits and supports necessary to suppress their viral loads and prevent new HIV infections, despite the fact that the “public charge” test does not apply to them.
Or the young people we see who are terrified to continue behavioral health services covered by Medicaid even though Medicaid for children under 21 years old is not subject to the new rule.
We urge immigrants and their allies to fight back by educating themselves about when the new “public charge” rule applies, and more importantly, when obtaining public benefits will have no impact whatsoever on their chances of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
State attorneys general from across our land will now fight the “public charge” rule in court. Congress, when it comes back from recess, will hopefully take up H.R. 3222, which bans the use of federal funds in implementing the “public charge” rule, essentially stopping it in its tracks.
The fight is not over and we encourage those who see and understand the devastation wrought by this regulation to stand up for social justice, to arm themselves with the facts about immigrant rights, to come out in support of the bill in Congress, and to send a message that the United States is still a land of fairness and decency.
Jenese Brownhill, a social worker, and Sara Benjamin, an attorney, are program directors at Needham, Mass.-based Justice Resource Institute.
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