The Statue of Liberty in Upper New York Bay. Image by Armelion from Pixabay

By Jill Hanken

 The American Dream has always promised immigrants a fair start: access to food, shelter and health care.

It has promised access to opportunity. My grandparents, Russian immigrants who came to this country in the early 1900s, understood this. With little money or material goods, they came to the U.S. for a new beginning, working hard to build better lives for their families.

The Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule threatens that ideal by forcing low-income immigrants to make an impossible choice: choosing between their families’ health or their immigration status.

A “public charge” is an individual the U.S. considers primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. For the first time in U.S. history, receiving non-cash, federally-funded benefits such as food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid or housing assistance—even for just a short period of time—will become part of the public charge determination.

In other words, the new public charge rule shifts its focus from one that excludes those fully dependent on government programs to anyone who may need to use a public benefit program at any time — even once.

If immigrants are deemed a public charge under the new rule, they will be prevented from entering the U.S. when seeking legal entry or becoming a lawful permanent resident when they are already in the U.S. legally and trying to attain green card status.

Immigration officials will be able to reject applications from individuals considered “more likely” to receive public benefits in the future. They will also be able to consider more factors, including the individual’s wealth, English proficiency, health status, age and education — criteria obviously designed to target low-income immigrants.

Immigrant communities throughout the country are understandably confused and scared. Many are unnecessarily withdrawing themselves and their families — even their U.S. citizen children — from necessary programs and services to which they are entitled. These families are withdrawing from programs that are not even subject to the new rule out of fear that participating in any government program will affect their families’ ability to enter or stay in the U.S.

This chilling effect has broad and dangerous consequences as our neighbors go without essential human services. The fear is creating more homelessness, more hunger and more people in poor health. It is preventing families from reuniting with loved ones.

Experts believe the regulation will affect 26 million people nationwide. That includes a quarter of all children within immigrant families — the vast majority of whom were born in the U.S. The rule will disproportionately impact people of color, affecting more than 10 million Latino and nearly four million Asian-American and Pacific Islander immigrants, widening racial disparities on everything from infant mortality to housing stability.

As immigrant communities are forced into deeper poverty while struggling to feed, house and get health care for their families, the rule’s harsh impacts will ripple outward, causing huge financial costs to state and local governments, faith-based groups and nonprofits that will have to fill gaps and respond to public health needs when people drop out of federal programs.

Grocery stores, medical providers and other businesses will see revenues drop as immigrants forego benefits they previously received. Because of these very real fiscal, social and economic concerns, 16 states, including Virginia, have already filed lawsuits to stop the new rule.

Families who remain in public benefits programs are becoming increasingly reluctant to accept referrals to important health services such as vision screenings and immunization services. When people do not seek basic food, support and health services, it puts them — and all of us — at risk for community instability.

The message the Trump administration’s new public charge rule sends to immigrants is clear: if you’re not wealthy, you’re not welcome. It is cruel and illogical for our government to provide legal immigrants access to vital human services and later consider their use of such services against them. The new rule punishes the poor for being poor, and as a consequence, rolls back progress in addressing hunger, health and poverty for everyone in this country.

My grandparents came from very little. They labored as a tailor and as a sewing factory worker and built a good life for their family by coming to the U.S. Now, immigrants coming to this country for the same reason are being measured by their wealth. As Americans, we pride ourselves on the ideal of fairness, of opportunity for all. But we are eliminating those opportunities for hardworking, low-income immigrants to build better lives as my grandparents — and many of yours — once did.

Jill Hanken is an attorney and director of the Center for Healthy Communities at the Virginia Poverty Law Center.