In the aftermath of the recent successful push  to ward off huge cuts to food assistance programs in the federal Farm Bill, advocates are now organizing to defeat another discriminatory and destructive attack — this one on supports to families who are struggling to get by and our immigration system that should allow families to stay together.
The Trump administration is preparing to unveil a new rule severely restricting access to critical supports to immigrants and their family members, thereby creating new barriers to economic mobility. What’s more, while the proposed rule is clearly a targeted attack on immigrants and people of color, it is much more than just an “immigration” matter because it is ultimately about the health and wellbeing of our entire community, including hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children.
If the community raises its voice, however, there may still be a chance to stop it.
The proposed rule revolves around a century-old immigration policy that generally requires immigrants seeking lawful immigration status to prove that they will not be “a public charge” by becoming dependent upon the government for support. Despite this general rule, it’s been established U.S. policy for nearly 20 years that eligible immigrants may make use of life-sustaining health and nutritional programs that are key to healthy outcomes for children and families – most notably, Medicaid, Affordable Care Act health coverage, WIC nutrition assistance for babies and moms and SNAP (Food Stamps).
In addition and importantly, current law also makes clear that any benefits used by the U.S. citizen children or family members of immigrants do not count against the immigrants themselves.
The administration’s new scheme would change all of this. It states that if immigrants make use of these health and nutrition programs, the government will use it against them in determining whether they can obtain lawful immigration status.
To make matters even more outrageous, the draft proposal states that even benefits used by an immigrant’s U.S. citizen children or dependents can be used against her as well.
Needless to say, such a rule could produce devastating humanitarian consequences. Columbia University researchers estimate  the proposed changes could force more than 670,000 children into poverty nationwide, and about 560,000 of those children would be U.S. citizens.
Data also show that 219,000 children  in North Carolina who are enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) have at least one immigrant parent. While not all would be affected by this rule, many of them could be. This proposed rule change could, in other words, jeopardize access to health care, sufficient food, and stable housing for thousands of North Carolina children.
The domino effects of such a cut-off in essential services are, sadly, easy to predict. Study after study has shown the negative effect that food insecurity can have on children’s academic performance and outcomes, and conversely, the positive effect that nutrition support programs can have on those same children. Similarly, there is a clear link between health and academic outcomes. The Earned Income Tax Credit, another program that the new rule may place at risk for immigrant families and their U.S. citizen children, has also been shown to improve children’s health and academic outcomes as well as their lifetime earnings.
The proposed rule would force families, including citizen children, to choose between getting the help they need and reuniting with those they love or even keeping their families together.
And, of course, it’s folly to think that the harm will be confined to the immigrants and their children. Everyone is affected when their neighbors and classmates are not able to get the healthcare they need to prevent illness or are not able to eat every day or put a roof over their head. Indeed, public health generally is put at risk when fewer people have access to care for infectious diseases like the flu that hit North Carolina so hard this past season.
The impossible choice forced on these families will not only put their physical and emotional wellbeing at risk but will ripple through the economy. Families unable to make ends meet will turn to private charities for help, and may be unable to participate in the local economy by purchasing food at the grocery store or paying their utility bills.
Fortunately, this proposed rule is not law yet and cannot become law without going through a public rulemaking process. Federal officials will have to consider public comments before acting and it will therefore be critical for people from many sectors, including immigrant communities, health care providers, educators, retailers, and more to speak out about the negative effects this rule would have. Those interested submitting a comment can click here  to learn more and to receive notification from the North Carolina Justice Center when the rule is published.
The bottom line: The Trump proposal will not only put the physical and emotional wellbeing of families at risk but will ripple throughout our communities in all sorts of negative ways. Let’s hope widespread public outcry forces its proponents to reverse course.
Kate Woomer-Deters is a staff attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center’s Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.