I hadn’t heard from my client Gina in years.
Gina, like many survivors of domestic violence in immigrant families, wound up arrested and sent to immigration detention as a result of a string of terrifying experiences tied to her abusive partner, who was a U.S. citizen. For nearly two years, she was locked up in a detention center, separated from three U.S. citizen children who were all under the age of eight at the time. I’ll never forget the heartbreaking beauty of a rare visit her kids made to the detention center, when she proudly presented them with a “cake” she had managed to make from a variety of ingredients from the commissary and dining hall creatively mixed and microwaved together.
Gina eventually got out of detention and received a humanitarian visa that led to a green card. We were very close for the years that I represented her, nearly a decade ago, in her immigration case, but since those dark days, she and I have been in touch only rarely. I know that it is not easy to close the door on the trauma that she and her children experienced, both as a result of the violence in their home and their two years of forced separation during her time in immigration detention, but after she received a green card several years ago, I officially closed Gina’s case.
I was surprised, then, to hear from Gina just this week, when she called me out of the blue with a question that made my skin crawl. She had recently been diagnosed with a rare tumor that would require surgery, she told me—adding, apologetically, she that she and her kids are on Medicaid, and then explaining, quickly, that she doesn’t use any other benefits, and that they’ve only used Medicaid for occasional health issues. With the surgery on the horizon, she also admitted that she does not know how she will manage without it.
Gina wanted to know if she had to un-enroll her whole family because of Trump’s new rule—providing a disturbing glimpse into the impact of the latest effort by his administration to drive immigrants into the darkest corners of our society.
“Public charge” is a designation that has long-existed in immigration law as a ground to deny admission to certain immigrants deemed likely to become primarily dependent on the government for support. Until now, the rule was interpreted very narrowly, with explicit policy guidance that important health and nutritional programs including Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) were not to be considered as factors in determining if someone was likely to become a public charge.
Trump’s new rule, scheduled to go into effect in October 2019, reverses this policy. It specifies that the use of publicly-funded health care, nutrition and housing programs will be heavily weighted negative factors in public charge determinations. The new interpretation is explicitly intended to apply to immigrants applying for green cards, not legal permanent residents like Gina, and certainly not her U.S. citizen children—but from the time the rule was initially proposed, over a year ago, experts and advocates have warned that the rule’s actual impact will extend far beyond its stated targets.
Currently, my own small legal clinic represents a family in the process of seeking asylum. The young children have lived through unspeakable trauma and terror in their home country. They live in a supportive school and community that has connected them with services to help during these difficult months of transition, including a therapist to come to the home to work with the youngest, who suffers panic attacks and anxiety. As asylum-seekers, they are legally eligible to receive these services, both before and after the new rule. Yet months ago, even before the rule was finalized, after just a few visits by the therapist that everyone agreed were helpful, our clients refused to continue to receive these services. Our assurances could not convince them that it was “safe” to receive this type of assistance given the rumors in the community about the public charge rule.
“Importantly,” the Trump Administration pronounced, “the regulation does not apply to humanitarian-based immigration programs for refugees, asylees… trafficking victims… or victims of domestic violence (VAWA self-petitioners), among others.” But the Administration knows full well that the regulation will impact precisely these populations. During the required notice-and-comment period for the proposed rule, the Administration received hundreds of thousands of comments, the majority of which were critical. Many highlighted research on the chilling effect it would have. Simply stating that it does not impact vulnerable populations does not make it so—particularly in the context of the threatened and actual raids and attacks that further all immigrants’ sense of constant danger.
Access to benefits like Medicaid, nutritional assistance programs and Section 8 housing clearly benefit the public as a whole, which is why there are strong policy arguments, against applying the Public Charge Rule even to its intended targets—individuals applying for green cards. These arguments are all the more compelling in light of the rule’s reach far beyond its stated parameters.
When we discuss and understand the Public Charge Rule, let there be no question that it will harm some of the very most vulnerable in our society—including U.S. citizen children, survivors of domestic violence and recently arrived refugees and asylum-seekers who need a small measure of social support as they bravely make their way in a new country.