Misconceptions about what it means for immigrants who get public services

A park ranger leads a tour explaining the the history of the Statue of Liberty. (Photo by National Park Service.)

Behind most Americans is a story of a dream for a better life.

What then, should we think of the Department of Homeland Security’s recent proposal to change rules regarding “public charge?” The move would penalize legal immigrants using federal programs to which they are entitled by denying them permanent residence in the United States. “Public charge” is defined as a person lacking self-sufficiency but historically, has not included non-cash programs. In saying immigrants and working families who need help through food stamps, public housing or Medicaid are less desirable, we turn our back on our nation’s centuries-old history and welcome.

The argument that the U.S. should reserve entry to those deemed worthy by virtue of economic self-sufficiency is baseless. Statistics clearly show immigrants contribute far more to the U.S. economy than they take away. But you don’t need to be an economist to appreciate what’s at stake. You can find much more persuasive arguments closer to home — in the examples of neighbors, coworkers, family and friends.

Lu Jiang, board member for International Community Health Services (ICHS) Foundation, is one such example. ICHS is a non-profit community health center serving many of the area’s immigrants and refugees. More than half of ICHS patients need interpretation help and 81% are people of color. Today, Jiang, a college graduate and active philanthropist with a high-profile career, is the American model of success. Her story shows what we gain when we offer immigrants a helping hand along the path to citizenship.

“There is a lot of misconception about what it means to get public services,” she said. “When I was in this country, with a father, with some support. I could tell you that three months is not nearly enough to be ‘self-sufficient.’ You definitely need more time than that. It’s taking a narrow view of what it means to provide value and what it means to be a contributing member of society if you’re not given a fair chance to start your new life here.”

Jiang and her father immigrated to the U.S. together from China when she was nine years old. Their first few years were not easy. They initially lived with a family friend in a predominately white neighborhood in Seattle’s north end, as they learned a new language, culture and way of life.

“The first year was the hardest year — trying to get by,” she recalls. “I didn’t know the alphabet. I didn’t even know A-B-C. I was one of two minorities in the entire school. I went to an ESL class and my only other friend was a girl from a migrant family from Mexico. She didn’t speak Chinese, I didn’t speak Spanish. Neither one of us spoke English.”

Jiang remembers getting reduced lunch at school and making trips to a local food bank. She doesn’t agree with the proposed changes to the public charge rule and what they imply about immigrants’ role in America’s economy and society.

“That’s a very narrow view of what it means to be a citizen and a contributor,” said Jiang. “Immigrants are the United States’ superpower. Immigrants have created jobs, innovated new technologies and created many opportunities. They are the fabric of this nation. Let’s be honest, we all came from somewhere. We’re all transplants. We should at least give them a fair shot.”

Jiang’s decision to support the ICHS Foundation’s board of directors from among the many organizations she could give her time to has personal origins. She credits ICHS with saving her life. When she was 10, she became seriously ill and received care at ICHS’s medical clinic in the International District, a long-time haven for Seattle’s Chinese American community. She and her father took advantage of the sliding fee scale for patients without health insurance, as well as ICHS’s multilingual staff and doctors, many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants themselves.

“We didn’t have a lot of money. I remember my father told the operator that I was very sick and they told us to come right away, on that same day. That saved my life,” she said. “People were so kind. The exam was free and we paid just three dollars for medicine. But it isn’t those details I remember. It’s how this place made me feel that stayed with me. I felt I would be okay and it was okay to need help and be there. I told myself, when I am able, I want to come back and be of service to ICHS.”

Jiang’s story reminds us what’s at stake with the public charge proposal and its attacks on immigrants and their families. Already, before going into effect, the proposal’s announcement has had a chilling effect on organizations like ICHS, which has seen growing numbers of immigrants deny themselves or their family members health and social services. ICHS’s executive leadership braces for a public health crisis as they see community members disenroll from safety net programs and services out of fear and confusion.

Let’s not see the American dream die.

The public charge rule is an affront to our most basic American values — justice, equality and freedom — at the same time it denies immigrants’ place of value. Join ICHS and Protect Immigrant Families-Washington and make your objections heard. Submit a public comment by December 10 to stop the proposal’s adoption.