Proposed Immigration Changes Already Having Effects, Research Finds

The change would allow the government to deny entry or citizenship to applicants who are likely to rely on Medicaid or SNAP, among other things.

The change would allow the government to deny entry or citizenship to applicants who are likely to rely on Medicaid or SNAP, among other things. Shutterstock


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A change to the "public charge" rules under consideration by the Trump Administration is discouraging immigrants from applying for benefit programs, according to research from the Urban Institute.

A proposed rule change that could make it harder for immigrants to obtain green cards if they access social safety net programs is already discouraging non-native residents from applying for those services, according to new research from the Urban Institute.

The Trump administration in September proposed the change to the “public charge” provision of existing immigration policy, which allows the federal government to deny citizenship or entry to the United States if the person in question is likely to rely on long-term assistance. The proposed changes would expand the assistance programs that can be considered under that provision, including for the first time Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and several housing programs, among others.

The comment period for the rule change ended in December with no explicit comment from the president or the Department of Homeland Security. The policy has yet to be finalized or enacted, though a decision is expected in the coming months. But it’s still having so-called “chilling effects” on adults in immigrant families, including those who would not be affected by the rule if it became permanent, researchers found.

“About one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported ‘chilling effects,’ in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a non-cash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card status,” researchers wrote in a brief. “This figure was even higher, 20.7 percent, among adults in low-income immigrant families.”

Those results are based on data from a December internet-based survey of roughly 2,000 adults who are either foreign-born themselves or live with one or more foreign-born family members. Respondents were asked about their awareness of the proposed policy change and about any observed chilling effects in their own families.

According to the results, chilling effects extended even to adults who would not be affected by the change—namely, families where all non-citizens already had green cards (14.7 percent) and families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens (9.3 percent). Immigrants were also more reluctant to access the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, “even though the latter is not on the list of benefits in the proposed rule.”

“This suggests spillover effects on people who will not be subject to future public charge determinations but may be confused about the rule and who it applies to, or fear it could impair their ability to sponsor other family members for green cards,” the brief says.

To date, SNAP is the most affected program—46 percent of respondents said that someone in their family did not apply for or stopped receiving food benefits for fear of impacting a green-card application. Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program was second (42 percent), followed by housing subsidies (33.4 percent) and other programs, including federal health insurance subsidies and energy bill assistance programs (8.6 percent).

The reluctance to tap into federal programs is largely based on fear and confusion about what the proposed change could mean and who might be affected by it, researchers said. Disseminating accurate information about the provision could help mitigate those effects.

“Investing in educating service providers who may interact with immigrant families could also combat misconceptions and ensure families receive the information they need to make informed choices on their and their children’s behalves,” the brief says. “This applies to government social services staff and practitioners in community-based organizations, as well as to staff at schools and early childhood education providers, faith leaders, employers, and other sites where families who are afraid of interacting with government authorities may be reached.”

The self-reported data is a starting point, researchers conclude, but the information gleaned from the survey should be verified “in administrative data sources, if possible.”

“Local and state government agencies could shed light on changing program participation numbers by examining their own data. Community-based organizations encountering immigrant families could also monitor family experiences,” they wrote. “This real-time evidence on the impacts of anticipated and implemented policy changes on the ground is critical to inform policymakers and practitioners developing effective strategies to reduce harm.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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