The Trump administration announced sweeping changes to immigration policy that could force hundreds of thousands of people to forgo necessities like food assistance and health care in order to protect their immigration status. Washington state and the city of Seattle are fighting back.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson joined a coalition of 13 states in a lawsuit to stop the administration’s change of the “public charge” rule, a rule that seeks to deny entry to or the right to stay in the United States to anyone who uses a suite of government benefits, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
This is a significant change in the previous version of the rule implemented in 1999, which looked at cash assistance or “institutionalization for long-term care at Government expense,” according to the rule. Non-cash assistance, such as food stamps, housing vouchers or health care, were not previously considered.
“This rule redefines the term ‘public charge’ to mean an alien who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period,” according to the rule. If a person receives two benefits in a single month, that counts as two months.
The change goes one step further — immigration officials can also deny entry to people who they suspect might require such benefits after they arrive in the United States.
That means that people may be turned away if they do not have enough money in their bank accounts to satisfy immigration officials, but the standards are not clear, according to the Attorney General’s office.
“The Trump administration’s message is clear: If you’re wealthy, you’re welcome, if you’re poor, you’re not,” said Ferguson in a press release.
In a letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in December commenting on the rule, Ferguson, Gov. Jay Inslee and Mayor Jenny Durkan estimated that the change could harm as many as 140,000 Washingtonians.
This appears to be a feature, not a bug.
Acting head of DHS Ken Cuccinelli told NPR that the famous Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” should be modified to include immigrants who can “stand on their own two feet.”
Cuccinelli, who co-founded a group that believes that undocumented immigrants constituted an invasion that should be combatted using war powers under the Constitution, according to CNN, echoed Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who told reporters in 2017 that the famous poem had been added to the Statue of Liberty at a later date.
Advocates are still puzzling out what all is in the rule, which is hundreds of pages long, said Meghan Kelly-Stallings, citizenship program and policy specialist with Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.
It’s left many people concerned about their immigration status and avoiding benefits altogether, even if they technically wouldn’t count under the rule.
“We already fielded a constituent email that came through the Mayor’s Office that was about someone who received some sort of subsidy, a city benefit,” Kelly-Stallings said. “They’re here on a student visa and hoping to someday immigrate with a green card and live here permanently.”
In some cases, eligibility for programs depends on immigrants accessing benefits through the state Department of Social and Health Services.
“The vast majority of the participants qualify by virtue of receiving DSHS benefits, and we are hearing about people choosing to disenroll from benefits,” Kelly-Stallings said. “For the New Citizen Program, it’s all people who are applying for citizenship. They already have green cards. It’s not even the population being targeted by the public charge rule.”
This is part of the “chilling effect” that the rule has on immigrant populations, said Andrea Kovach, senior attorney for health care justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.
“The message the rule sends is simple and clear: Immigrant families who receive benefits for which they are eligible could be putting their immigration status in jeopardy,” Kovach said.
Depending on the outcome of the legal challenge, the rule is set to go into place on Oct. 15.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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