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The Trump administration has proposed reinterpreting a piece of immigration law intended to screen whether legal immigrants are likely to be self-supporting or end up consuming public benefits. Known as the “public charge” rule, it’s sowing concern even among green card holders and permanent residents, who fear that signing up for social services may jeopardize their ability to stay in the U.S.
Now let's return to immigration and a debate that's heating up once again.
Last week, the Trump administration proposed a major change in the way immigration officials decide who gets to come to and who gets to stay in this country.
The proposal, which has been rumored for over a year-and-a-half, is now fielding public comments and could take effect as soon as early next year.
Special correspondent and "Washington Post" columnist Catherine Rampell has the story for our weekly series Making Sense.
Maria — she doesn't want her face shown or last name used — came to Northern California from Mexico seven years ago, following a man she'd met back home.
I was in love. I was thinking it was the right time to get married, have kids, start a family. That's why I came here.
She did marry, but by the time her first child, now 5, was born, the marriage was crumbling, and she was having trouble feeding her baby. Her only support with the lactation consultant at WIC, the federally funded nutrition program for low-income women, infants and children.
I was alone, no family, no friends. So, to receive that call every week and tell me, just keep trying, you can do this, if you have another question, you can call us, it was a lot of help.
As were other federal programs to which her U.S. citizen child was entitled.
I took food stamps and I took Medi-Cal for my daughter.
Medi-Cal is California's Medicaid program.
They are great programs. They support a lot.
By now, you may be wondering if Maria wants her identity hidden because she is undocumented. She's not. She's here legally, now remarried to a U.S. citizen who sponsored her for a green card.
Plus, she's a doctor. And though her Mexican credentials don't let her practice medicine in the U.S., she plans to train for a new health care job in the future, just the kind of highly skilled immigrant the Trump administration says it prefers.
Nonetheless, she fears deportation, because the administration is now going after legal immigrants like her. They want to reinterpret a vague bit of immigration law that's supposed to screen whether immigrants are likely to be self-supporting or end up on the dole.
It's called the public charge rule.
Like it or not, that's been on the books — for since the 1880s. It was one of the three bases upon which people's admission was adjudicated when they showed up at Ellis Island.
Francis Cissna is the director of U.S. citizenship and immigration services. He declined an interview, but has spoken publicly about the rule.
We're not saying that they can't receive public benefits. We're just saying that there comes a point when someone has become so dependent or reliant on public benefits that we now deem them to be a public charge and, accordingly, inadmissible. That's something that has to be done.
Right now, cash welfare benefits are a strike against a green card application, but says Marielena Hincapie, head of the National Immigration Law Center, the administration wants to greatly expand the list of potential no-nos.
Programs like food stamps, housing assistance, like housing Section 8 vouchers. It also includes the low-income subsidy for Medicare Part D.
And it includes Medicaid, earning below 125 percent of the poverty line, and failing to work if authorized to do so.
The Trump administration is sending a message to people, to the world that the United States is only open for wealthy people.
Or at least wealthy enough, says Francis Cissna.
Federal law generally requires that the foreign national seeking to come to or remain in the United States be able to support themselves financially and not be dependent on the public to meet their needs.
So is the administration simply looking out for U.S. taxpayers?
Well, according to a report from the National Academy Of Sciences, federal taxpayers are already coming out ahead.
U.C. Davis economist Giovanni Peri:
All the recent estimates show that, in net, immigrants are fiscal surplus plus for the U.S.
Meaning that they pay more taxes into the system than they receive in terms of public spending, welfare and benefit.
Of course, the more educated and highly skilled the immigrant, like Professor Peri himself…
I am Italian. I'm from Italy.
… the larger the fiscal surplus. And immigrants can be a drain on state and local budgets, primarily due to the cost of educating their kids.
But when it comes to federal budgeting, immigrants both legal and undocumented compare favorably to similar native-born Americans, because they're less likely to be eligible for benefits and more likely to work.
So if they are low-educated immigrants work at rate of 70, 75 percent vs. low-educated native that work of 50, 55 percent.
But, also, there's a little bit of a stigma in applying for welfare, because they have come here to work, to support to their families.
And if immigrants were reluctant to apply for benefits before the rule change, they're terrified now.
You have a baby girl now.
Yes, she's 2 months old.
Did you think about enrolling in WIC again?
At the beginning, I didn't have a lot of milk. I couldn't breastfeed her. So the doctor told me that it will be great if I get WIC, because they will be providing me with formula. But we decide we didn't want to try because it will be a problem for my residency.
Even though WIC is not even targeted in the proposed rule.
Since everything is changing, and this year, it's OK, but maybe next year is not OK, I don't feel really safe taking the programs anymore.
Her fear seems reasonable. Even before the Trump administration officially proposed the rule change this month, multiple evolving drafts of it had leaked and were widely covered by foreign-language media.
The rule is so massive and confusing that it's going to make people fearful across the country.
Sherry Hirota is CEO of Asian Health Services, a Bay Area network of clinics.
We have patients that have asked to be taken off of our electronic health records. We have people who are afraid to sign up for food stamps.
Legal immigrants are now at the crosshairs.
This is about people who are legally entitled to these benefit programs, but now are being told, if you use them, you will be denied a green card.
Millions of immigrant receive benefits targeted by the rule, though some, like refugees, are exempted. They may choose to forego aid anyway. It's happened before.
The closest analogue we have to what might happen from this proposed rule is what happened after the welfare reform of the 1990s, with changes in immigrant eligibility for many elements of the social safety net.
U.C. Berkeley economist Hilary Hoynes says the chilling effects were large, due to misinformation and fear.
So a policy changed food stamps, we see people dropping out of WIC, for example. So that's dimension one.
Dimension number two is that there are groups who are unaffected by the policy change, for example, citizen children, who nonetheless dropped out of participation in programs that were affected.
But what's the big deal if fewer immigrants or their families claim benefits?
For one thing, says Asian Health Services' Dr. Kimberly Chang, if immigrants are afraid to get health care, that could pose a public health risk.
Dr. Kimberly Chang:
If you think about infectious disease, if you think about the flu season that's coming up, if you think about measles, if people don't come in and get those vaccines, they put the American population at risk.
More broadly, pushing immigrants off benefits might save taxpayers money in the short run, but it could cost money in the long run.
Those kids who get more access to Medicaid or food stamps have higher earnings and are more economically self-sufficient in adulthood. And so they're essentially coming to the labor market as more productive workers, generating more taxes and generating more income for their families in adulthood.
All of these different programs are anti-poverty programs for a reason. They're actually helping people make ends meet when times are hard.
My own personal story is that I'm the youngest of 10. We immigrated from Colombia in the 1970s. We used food stamps when my father and my mother were in between jobs when they were laid off from their factory jobs.
And, today, my nine brothers and sisters and I are all professionals.
Meanwhile, even though no one in her family receives any benefits now, Maria is still at risk of losing her right to stay here, because, as a new mom, she's not currently working.
Plus, her American husband's low-income level might raise a red flag.
Who is going to raise my kids, right? That is hard to think.
What are you going to do if Maria can't get a permanent green card?
I would good go with her, actually. I guess we would be immigrants in Mexico.
Some irony to that, I guess.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Catherine Rampell reporting from California.
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