‘Public Charge’ changes imperil refugees and immigrants

Proposed changes by the Department of Homeland Security, broadening the definition of who is “likely to become a public charge,” could harm many children and families of non-resident, documented immigrants and even affect refugees, who may not realize that they are legally exempt from the rule.

Until now, the government has only looked at an immigrants’ use of cash benefits such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Now, the government wants to also scrutinize immigrants’ use of non-cash benefits such as SNAP (food stamps), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) and other Medicaid benefits, housing assistance and possibly even WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

This looming rule change sets up an awful choice—healthy families now or possible U.S. residency later. Forgo benefits and your kids will be harmed because they won’t have access to programs that put food on the table, or a roof over their heads. Use these benefits to build a foundation for the future and risk there being no future at all—at least in this country. Pregnant and breastfeeding moms would be forced to decide whether to forgo Medicaid. If WIC is included in the rule, early nutrition for kids could be sacrificed. Immigrants who forgo life-saving procedures may pay with their lives.

The prospect of such a drastic change has already precipitated a public health crisis as many documented immigrants—and even some refugees--have taken themselves and their families off such programs. Even though they are legally protected from the operation of this rule, refugee families don’t necessarily understand the fine points and react out of fear. According to the International Rescue Committee, “The last time the definition of public charge was expanded, for example, refugee use of benefits fell drastically even though they were still eligible: food stamps fell by 60%, TANF by 78% and Medicaid by 39%.”

The long-term health consequences of this near-sighted idea, upending decades of immigration policy, could be costly to society. Children and families will lose access to preventative health measures, a cost that will resonate over decades. There will be increased emergency room costs and higher healthcare expenditures in later years.

Is this what we as a nation want? As an organization formed to help refugees resettle in Missoula, we also recognize the broader immigrant community and strongly disagree with this unnecessary obstacle to their success. It ultimately weakens this country as well.  

DHS is taking comments for 60 days until Dec. 10, before the rule change becomes permanent. Tell the government why you think this rule change is harmful.

(Mail: Samantha Deshommes, Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division, Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security, 20 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20529-2140. Please reference DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012).

The IRC also has an excellent toolkit to help you fashion an effective message to the government.