Central Texas advocacy groups and attorneys say they worry immigrants will forego vital nutritional and medical care after a new federal policy takes effect Oct. 15 that will make it harder for green card applicants to live and work permanently in the country if they qualify for public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Thousands of Texas immigrants could be affected by the “public charge” rule that also considers a green card applicant’s health, age, assets, financial status, education and skills. Last week’s announcement has sparked confusion in the local immigrant community about what those changes mean. Attorneys and advocacy groups are trying to quell fears as well as boost outreach efforts to make sure immigrants know their legal rights.
“We already had a mechanism in place,” said Austin-based immigration attorney Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch.“The administration is trying to fix something that is not broken and sending people into the shadows.”
Currently, she said, some green card applicants have sponsors who have to meet an income requirement and may be financially liable if a permanent resident applies for public benefits. Lincoln-Goldfinch said the new rule is “totally unnecessary” and “vilifies the community.”
In a White House press briefing last week, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that through the public charge rule, “President Trump’s administration is reinforcing the ideals of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful here in America.”
A public charge, according to Cuccinelli, will be defined as an individual who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months within any 36-month period. A recipient of two different benefits in one month, for example, counts as two months.
American Gateways, which provides immigration legal services to low-income immigrants throughout Central Texas and San Antonio, called the new rule “cruel and poorly reasoned.”
All of the nonprofit’s clients live at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, according to American Gateways, and a significant portion live below 125% of the federal poverty guidelines. The legal services provider describes the majority of its clients as “working parents, holding low-paying, service sector jobs that do not offer a living wage or other benefits such as health insurance.”
“It is exactly this vulnerability, not some notional aversion to work or desire for government largesse, that leads some of our clients to access minimal public support to which they are entitled — in the form of tax incentives or programs like Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP or WIC. Under U.S. law, they have a right to do so, either because they have been designated as refugees, because they are taxpayers or because they have U.S. citizen children,” said Rebecca Lightsey, American Gateways’ executive director. “These programs help keep food on the table, ensure that their children will be able to see a doctor when they are sick and protect against financial shocks such as unpredicted expenses.”
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The rule “effectively targets low-income immigrants for taking care of their families, behavior that would be applauded in any other context,” according to the nonprofit.
At Lincoln-Goldfinch’s law firm, staff members have fielded concerned calls including from U.S. citizens worried about accepting public utility rebates. The new policy will not affect U.S. citizens or those who already have green cards or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. The law firm has been posting updated information on its social media pages for clients, including Facebook live videos explaining to the public what lawyers know so far. The 800-page rule, Lincoln-Goldfinch said, will take time for attorneys to review to determine how it will specifically affect people.
“The biggest concern is that people are going to start canceling benefits that children need like free lunches and Medicaid,” she said. “Texas children and their ability to eat is directly impacted by a policy like this.”
The law firm advises parents not to cancel benefits for their U.S.-born children because it will not affect a parent’s case and they advise those who have questions about their situations to consult a trusted immigration attorney.
At the Central Texas Food Bank, staffers said the new rule has had “a chilling effect.” The organization, which provides food and grocery products for nearly 46,000 people every week, worries that it may see a spike in demand if people stop enrolling for food stamps for fear of it affecting their immigration case.
The food bank works in partnership with Texas Health and Human Services to help explain how the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program works and how to enroll. If a client qualifies for food stamps, that decreases demand for the food bank.
“Our focus is making sure that we get the facts out to our clients,” said Beth Corbett, the food bank’s director of advocacy and public policy. “As soon as a new rule is proposed, the fear spreads like wildfire.”
But getting the word out is “always a challenge,” said Paul Gaither, the food bank’s marketing and communications director. Clients don’t always have reliable contact information, he said. The food bank serves people throughout 21 Central Texas counties, regardless of immigration status, according to the nonprofit.
Several states have filed a lawsuit over the new public charge rule since last week’s announcement, and Lincoln-Goldfinch said she expects an injunction in the next few weeks.
“We’ll keep paying attention to what’s happening and wait to see what these lawsuits bring,” she said.