Trump proposal chills immigrant enrollment in public services

Christina Wong, public policy and advocacy director for Northwest Harvest, talks with Aliya S. Haq, nutrition services supervisor at International Community Health Services. Wong said the new proposal threatens decades of progress on poverty hunger and will “force families to make an impossible choice between food and staying together.” (Photo by Aliah Elaoud)

Confusion and fear over a proposed amendment to existing rules on immigration by the Trump administration is causing some King County immigrants to withdraw from or avoid seeking public services, local officials and immigrant rights advocates say.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the fear in the eyes of all the moms and dads that are asking us to actually remove them from the services we provide,” said Aliya S. Haq, nutrition services supervisor at International Community Health Services in Seattle.

The Department of Homeland Security released the proposed changes to existing rules on Sept. 22. If implemented, the proposal would make it more difficult for a person to gain entry or permanent status in the U.S. if that person seems likely to use non-cash public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps and public housing. The proposed regulations won’t apply to existing green card holders or refugees.

Even though implementation of the proposal would be months away, Haq said rumors and misinformation already have created a chilling effect on immigrants and their families in need of public assistance.

An early draft of this proposal was leaked right after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. By March of that year, there were already reports of immigrants disenrolling or declining to enroll in public services.

There is research showing that when immigration enforcement of any kind increases, participation by immigrants in public services declines. In many cases, undocumented parents will remove their citizen children from programs even though they are eligible.

The Department of Homeland Security’s proposal acknowledges that disenrollment or avoidance of enrollment in public assistance services could result in “worse health outcomes,” including increases in obesity and malnutrition, emergency room use, communicable diseases, poverty rates, and housing instability, as well as reduced productivity and educational attainment.

Patty Hayes, the director of public health for Seattle and King County, agreed. She said new mothers are saying they don’t want services, including baby formula. Pregnant women are declining nutrition services. Parents are removing their children from health insurance.

Hayes said she believes the proposal would have disastrous effects on the health and safety of the entire community.

“If that child gets sick in the classroom, if that child is hungry, it affects every one of us,” she said.

The government already considers a person’s use of cash benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to determine if they are likely to become a public charge, or someone who depends on public benefits as the primary means of support. It’s one of several factors immigration officials weigh when considering someone for temporary or permanent residency.

The new rule would take into consideration a person’s use of non-cash benefits like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), Section 8 and other public housing.

Once the rule proposal is officially published on the Federal Register, the public will have 60 days to comment on it and, after potential revisions resulting from those comments, will go into effect 60 days after the final rule is published.