Fearing Trump’s New Crackdown, Immigrants Are Already Forgoing Food Stamps

The Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule is having its intended effect: collective punishment of immigrant communities.

Michelle Chen August 15, 2019

Trump's attacks on immigrants are reaching a new level. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion clar­i­fied this week which kind of immi­grants it prefers, and which it would rather send back to where they came from. A new rule will give the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty more author­i­ty to deny green cards to immi­grants who appear like­ly to become depen­dent on gov­ern­ment assistance.

For households already struggling with poverty, giving up a monthly food stamp supplement could push them toward hunger.

The new rule expands an arcane law on pub­lic charges,” a label used by the U.S. gov­ern­ment to assess whether green card or visa appli­cants are like­ly to be self-suf­fi­cient.” Under the long­stand­ing law, that infor­ma­tion can, in turn, be used to deny green cards to immi­grants. On Tues­day, Ken Cuc­cinel­li, the act­ing direc­tor of U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Immi­gra­tion Ser­vices, quipped on NPR of the new rule, Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a pub­lic charge,” chang­ing the lines of the famous poem embla­zoned on the Stat­ue of Liberty.

The under­ly­ing pur­pose of the new rule, how­ev­er, is not fis­cal pru­dence but col­lec­tive punishment.

The new rule dra­mat­i­cal­ly broad­ens the scope of the like­ly to become a pub­lic charge” cat­e­go­ry, and expands the cri­te­ria to include pro­grams such as food stamps, Med­ic­aid and fed­er­al hous­ing ben­e­fits like Sec­tion 8 rent sub­si­dies. The gov­ern­ment will also now take into con­sid­er­a­tion appli­cants’ health and finan­cial back­ground: Liv­ing in pover­ty counts against you, but an income of at least 250 per­cent above the pover­ty lev­el could boost your chances.

Since first pro­posed last year, the rule has drawn more than 260,000 pub­lic com­ments, which have been over­whelm­ing­ly neg­a­tive. It now faces sev­er­al legal chal­lenges but is sched­uled to go into effect on Octo­ber 15. The mea­sure, based on a late-19th-cen­tu­ry law that barred the admis­sion of idiots” and insane per­sons,” is a rel­ic of an era when med­ical exam­in­ers prod­ded and daubed arrivals to Ellis Island like cattle.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s focus on enforc­ing new con­trols on cur­rent immi­grants marks a piv­ot in his anti-immi­grant agen­da, from crack­ing down on undoc­u­ment­ed migrants to estab­lish­ing a mer­it-based” frame­work that favors wealth­i­er, bet­ter edu­cat­ed (and often whiter) new­com­ers. Ear­li­er this year, the admin­is­tra­tion moved to make the spon­sors of immi­grants finan­cial­ly liable for the pub­lic ben­e­fits immi­grants use, and to expel undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants from pub­lic housing.

Trump’s rule would apply to more than 382,000 nonci­t­i­zens nation­wide. Accord­ing to the Migra­tion Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, about 70 per­cent of peo­ple who have recent­ly become per­ma­nent res­i­dents would meet at least one of the neg­a­tive cri­te­ria in the pub­lic charge test. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties esti­mates that more than half of U.S.-born cit­i­zens have used at least one of the list­ed ben­e­fits dur­ing their life­times. Although DHS would have some dis­cre­tion over when to label some­one as a like­ly pub­lic charge, those who are brand­ed as such could even­tu­al­ly end up on track to depor­ta­tion — which could result in a greater pub­lic cost if a fam­i­ly is left impov­er­ished after the removal of a pri­ma­ry breadwinner.

Even before the rule is enact­ed, the threat of being brand­ed a like­ly pub­lic charge is already dri­ving immi­grants away from pub­lic ben­e­fits. The Urban Insti­tute esti­mates that in 2018, one in sev­en adults in immi­grant fam­i­lies did not apply for or dropped out of” a ben­e­fits pro­gram, cit­ing fear of risk­ing future green card sta­tus.” The deter­rent effect was even more pro­nounced for immi­grants in house­holds with chil­dren, Lat­inx immi­grants and those liv­ing close to the pover­ty line.

Trump’s crack­down appears to be prompt­ing many immi­grants in New York City to opt-out of nutri­tion assis­tance. The New York City Depart­ment of Social Ser­vices report­ed a dis­pro­por­tion­ate decline in food stamps enroll­ment since Trump took office, and the high­est rates of dis­en­roll­ment in 2018 were seen among black and Lat­inx nonci­t­i­zens. This dis­en­roll­ment — esti­mat­ed to include 25,000 indi­vid­u­als over two years — is expect­ed to result in a $72 mil­lion loss in eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty for the city. The New York-based non­prof­it Robin Hood Foun­da­tion has also esti­mat­ed that the pol­i­cy change could increase the city­wide pover­ty rate by five percent.

For house­holds already strug­gling with pover­ty, giv­ing up a month­ly food stamp sup­ple­ment could push them toward hunger. One immi­grant inter­vie­wee told Urban Insti­tute researchers, Peo­ple don’t eat like they used to, because every­thing is too expen­sive. Before, peo­ple could pur­chase a greater vari­ety of foods using their food stamps. But because we no longer have that aid, well, you eat what you can.”

Dani­lo Trisi, a senior research ana­lyst at the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties, not­ed that some groups are exempt from the pub­lic charge test, notably refugees and peo­ple with human­i­tar­i­an visas, but they too may recoil from access­ing ben­e­fits. Because immi­gra­tion rules are com­pli­cat­ed and some­times opaque, many fam­i­lies that [are exempt] may nev­er­the­less choose to for­go ben­e­fits for which they qual­i­fy, out of fear that their sta­tus could oth­er­wise be in jeop­ardy,” said Trisi.

Vey­om Bahl, man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Sur­vival pro­gram at the Robin Hood Foun­da­tion, says via email, From both quan­ti­ta­tive and anec­do­tal sources, the chill­ing effect has already mate­ri­al­ized and is like­ly wors­en­ing.” His organization’s food pantries — part of a net­work of food banks that form an alter­na­tive pri­vate safe­ty net” for New York­ers in need — have also seen a decline in immi­grant fam­i­lies seek­ing even free, emer­gency food sup­port in the last year.” With immi­grants seem­ing­ly wary of receiv­ing any aid, pub­lic or pri­vate, the Robin Hood Foun­da­tion has pro­vid­ed addi­tion­al fund­ing to local orga­ni­za­tions to pro­vide legal guid­ance for immi­grants adapt­ing to the new rule.

In addi­tion to under­min­ing social safe­ty net pro­grams, immi­grants might also be deterred from even apply­ing to adjust their sta­tus, explained Max Hadler, direc­tor of Health Pol­i­cy with the New York Immi­gra­tion Coali­tion. It’s not just about peo­ple using health ben­e­fits or food ben­e­fits or hous­ing ben­e­fits,” Hadler said. It’s also the degree to which some­thing like this dis­cour­ages peo­ple from sub­mit­ting appli­ca­tions for green cards and oth­er immi­gra­tion ben­e­fits. And we want to encour­age peo­ple who have a path­way to per­ma­nent res­i­den­cy and cit­i­zen­ship to pur­sue those pathways.”

Still, com­mu­ni­ty groups are hop­ing that the law­suits filed by 13 state attor­neys gen­er­al this week will man­age to thwart the rule before Octo­ber 15. Even if the rule is halt­ed by lit­i­ga­tion, how­ev­er, Hadler said there’s a lot of dam­age that’s already been done.”

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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