Immigration Rules Change Could Mean More Kids Separated From Parents

The proposed changes to the public charge rule are expected to result in immigrant families forgoing public benefits like housing assistance and food stamps, putting them at increased risk of involvement with child welfare.

Anti-poverty and children’s advocates are bracing for the fallout of proposed federal policy changes that would slash access to the social safety net for immigrant families, which could result in more children entering foster care.

“Any proposal that undermines the economic stability of families — which is exactly what this does — puts families at increased risk of involvement with the child welfare system,” said Wendy Cervantes, a senior policy analyst at The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

The new policy, promulgated in a Notice of Proposed Rule Making by the Department of Homeland Security, would penalize immigrants who take advantage of more than one public benefit. Under the rule, tapping into more than one benefit would be weighed negatively in applications for green cards and temporary visas.

The “public charge” rule, which has long been used as a “ground for inadmissibility” in immigration law, is intended to prevent people who will become reliant on public assistance — or in other words, an economic burden to the state — from entering or remaining in the country.

“An individual who is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible to the United States and ineligible to become a legal permanent resident,” according to the public charge fact sheet published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Historically, most benefits related to health care, food access or housing were exempt from this rule, but the proposed changes would end these exemptions, resulting in “many more eligible individuals depriving themselves of health care, nutrition and affordable housing in order to protect their ability to stay together as a family,” according to a statement from The Children’s Partnership.

While poorer health and economic strain are anticipated outcomes of the rule — which is still months away from being finalized — experts say that the unforeseen consequence could be more kids entering foster care. The overwhelming majority of foster care removals in America stem from neglect, not abuse. Many child welfare advocates, legal experts and researchers contend that much of this neglect can be traced to conditions of poverty, not bad parenting.

Inability to provide proper shelter and sufficient nutrition can result in losing a child, as can failing to provide necessary health care. Nearly half of families who have their children removed struggle to afford basic necessities, according to the Center for the Study of Social Policies (CSSP). The idea is that social safety net programs — like food stamps and federal health insurance — help keep families together by preventing these kinds of neglect.

The public was given 60 days to submit comment on the proposed rule changes. DHS received more than 200,000 comments — many of which vehemently opposed the rule changes, calling them “cruel, “inhumane” and “un-American.”

The administration must review all of the comments before submitting and publishing a finalized rule, a process that could take months or more given the volume of comments.

Current public charge rules only apply to cash assistance programs, like Social Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), as well as long-term institutional care coverage. The updated rules would encompass programs relied on by millions, including Medicaid, Section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps.

They would also include a “wealth test” that would make a person’s annual income a factor in their application for legal status. The threshold for a “strongly positive” wealth test result is $62,750 — more than five times higher than the poverty line for an individual.

“The administration would have enormous discretion to deny admission or green cards to those with incomes or financial assets below 250 percent of the poverty line,” according to commentary from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

DHS explicitly acknowledges within the body of the Notice of Proposed Rule Making that the new rules would mean decreased use of public benefits by immigrants and would result in worse health, increased malnutrition, and increased poverty and housing instability among their communities.

Screenshot of the public charge Notice of Proposed Rule Making from 1/16/2019.

DHS also suggests economic and collateral impacts of the proposed rule: decreased productivity, increased reliance on expensive emergency medical services and a rise` in unpaid treatments and heightened spread of communicable diseases, including among non-vaccinated U.S. citizens.

In a study of immigrants that have obtained legal status in the past five years, MPI researchers found that 69 percent of those who were awarded green cards “had at least one negative factor under the administration’s proposed expanded test.”

The rule changes would not just impact newly arriving immigrants, but also long-term U.S. residents and mixed-status families with U.S. citizen children.

In California alone, 6.8 million people — 35 percent of whom are children — would be affected by the proposed changes to public charge, according to The Children’s Partnership. Nationwide, that number could be as many as 15 million adults and 9 million children, according to the Fiscal Policy Institute.

Advocates are also on the lookout for a companion Notice of Proposed Rule Making from the Department of Justice (DOJ) “regarding how public charge could be applied for purposes of deportability,” according to Alexandra Citrin, a senior policy analyst with CSSP.

As historical reference for the potential fallout of the proposed rules change, experts point to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which reduced eligibility to Medicaid and other benefits for immigrants in their first five years of U.S. residence. This resulted in a significant decline in enrollment, Citrin said.

“We actually think that the chilling effect would be even greater right now because it would be in combination with all of the other really harmful policies that have come out of this administration,” said CLASP’s Cervantes.

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 55 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change