Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen
Image: AP

The Trump administration has proposed a new regulation that would make it much harder for low-income immigrants to come to the United States or receive a green card if they use, or are considered likely to use, public programs like Medicaid, food assistance, or housing assistance.

Under current policy, the government can reject applications for visas or permanent residence if they are considered “likely at any time to become a public charge.” But as other outlets have noted, the current designation—which is still expressly designed to target low-income and poor immigrants—is more narrow, including only cash assistance programs. The new proposal, as written, would expand the definition of public charge to include the use of public benefits that some immigrants are eligible for, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid, and give broad discretion to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to reject applicants based on their perceived economic status.

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After the Department of Homeland Security released the draft regulation on Saturday, advocates, lawyers, and service providers started reading through the 400-plus page document to map its potential impact. While many of the immigrants currently eligible for public benefits may not be impacted by the current proposal, advocates have already expressed concern that the proposed rules will nonetheless have a chilling effect and cut communities off from necessary services and benefits. (It also doesn’t require much of a leap to guess that this is the point of the thing.)

The fear of accessing necessary benefits is already having an impact, with service providers reporting a drop off in enrollment and disenrollment.

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Jezebel reached out to Evangeline Chan, the director of the Immigration Law Project at Safe Horizon, the largest domestic violence service provider in New York City, to talk about the proposed regulations and the chilling effect it may have on clients like hers, who are still eligible for benefits but may become too fearful to access them. “Food assistance, housing assistance, Medicaid—these are stepping stones for people to pick themselves up again and start over,” she said of the clients served by Safe Horizon. “Having to leave a home, having to leave a relationship where a spouse was financially supporting them—these services are really crucial.”

Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: This proposal has been in the works for some time, with a draft regulation circulating as far back as February. What was the response in your office when this version was published?  

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EVANGELINE CHAN: The rumors had been circulating for months. There was an immediate concern abut the impact on our clients, and the immigrant community at large. The proposal from earlier this year was much more expansive than this proposal, and that much is a relief. This version is a little narrower.

One of the things that we see in this version is that the clients we tend to serve at the agency—people who are victims of crime, domestic violence survivors, people applying for asylum—are exempted. We had feared they would not be, but right now it seems that the exemption [protecting survivors of domestic violence] is staying in place.

But the bigger fear is the chilling effect. Even when this was only a rumor, earlier this year, there had been a report from service providers about a drop off in enrollment and people disenrolling from benefits. People were disenrolling from benefits they are entitled to and, crucially, that they really do need. That is the biggest fear right now, that the chilling effect expands. That people, out of fear or undue caution, will not enroll and make a difficult choice between having legal status or crucial benefits.

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Can you say a little more about what something like food assistance or housing assistance might mean for a client who has just left an abusive relationship? What is someone losing if they decline those services out of fear of reprisal from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services? 

Food assistance, housing assistance, Medicaid—these are stepping stones for people to pick themselves up again and start over. Having to leave a home, having to leave a relationship where a spouse was financially supporting them—these services are really crucial.

A lot of our clients have expressed fear that they’re using benefits and how that impact their eligibility for whatever status they are applying for. Even in the early stages of this being a rumor [about changes to the “public charge” regulation], we would tell them that we would not advise them cutting themselves off from much needed assistance. That was the approach we were taking.

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But people were afraid, they were very, very afraid.

Do you think the nuances of the change—that most immigrants eligible for public benefits likely won’t be impacted by the proposal—will come through to people navigating these systems?  

It is built to be confusing. People are fearful they are misreading or misinterpreting, and may be subject to those rules. I was reading what qualifies as a “minimum threshold” that will be considered by [the Department of Homeland Security]—the monetized versus non-monetized benefits—and it was so confusing to me. I had to read it so many times. There is no way a layperson is going to understand this.

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It is going to be on the legal community to buckle down and communicate to clients what this means. But even then, people are afraid. They say they don’t want to take the risk. Even now—where there is a pretty clear, bright line exemption for certain groups of people—I can just see that people are thinking: What if they change it again? Out of an abundance of caution they won’t trust it.

The biggest concern right now is the chilling effect. It’s all the people who won’t be impacted by this but are afraid that it will. The impact could be really devastating. You are going to have people who are going to go uninsured, who will not take advantage of food assistance or housing assistance. People won’t take advantage of preventative care.

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It’s fear. I can’t emphasize enough how that has really impacted the clients and communities we serve.

I feel like part of what’s so difficult about this is the confusion these regulations and proposals inevitably create. The Trump administration enacts chaotic policy or proposed policy, which triggers a chaotic news cycle. It’s really easy to get lost in that.

I had a client come in over the summer who is applying for citizenship and is a domestic violence survivor. She already had her green card, and has three children who are citizens. One of her three children has autism and was getting much needed benefits, but she was so afraid that she would have to take him off his benefits in order to apply for citizenship. She then showed me an article that had nothing to do with that specifically, but mentioned benefits and the general climate about how everything was going in a negative direction with immigration, and she thought that meant a new regulation had passed already. She was operating under a rumor and really concerned it would apply to her.

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This is the kind of fear going on in the community. This is the larger effect of the proposal. It’s just relentless.