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Know Your Rights
Source: Gothamist
Subject: Health Justice & Access
Type: Media Coverage

City Cautions Immigrants: Don’t Rush To Drop Benefits For Fear Of Trump’s ‘Public Charge’ Rule

City officials are slamming a new immigration policy finalized by the Trump administration this week that would expand the federal government’s options for denying applications for legal status. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security can already label someone a “public charge” and deny them green cards if they receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); the new rule would also penalize applicants for the use of such public programs as Medicaid, SNAP, and Section 8 Housing Assistance.

As Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, put it Tuesday, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

But before anyone puts their access to health care, food, or housing in jeopardy by opting out of public programs, the city is urging people to pump the brakes and consult a lawyer, noting that not everyone who uses public services is risking their legal status.

“The ‘public charge’ rule is yet another attempt by the Trump administration to instill fear and concern among working immigrant families, but rest assured New Yorkers are fighters and the city will do everything in our power to ensure people have the resources they need to at this critical time,” Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said in a statement. “The city is here to help you make the right decision for you and your family.”

The updated public charge rule doesn’t go into effect until October 15th and is likely to face an onslaught of legal challenges before then, including from the city.

“To our immigrant New Yorkers: We stand with you now and always,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. “To our president: We’ll see you in court.”

The public charge test has been used to boot poor immigrants from the country since it was invoked in Congress’s first comprehensive immigration law in 1882. The city estimated in October that with this most recent update, 75,000 New Yorkers could be forced to choose between accessing benefits to which they are legally entitled and “possible future adverse immigration consequences.” But the fear the rule has raised around accessing food, housing, and health care has been widespread and could have more far-reaching consequences.

People started preemptively opting out of benefits they’re legally entitled to as soon as drafts of the expanded “public charge” rule started circulating last year. City officials, along with health care providers and nonprofits serving immigrant communities, project that this chilling effect on the use of public benefits will only grow if the rule takes effect.

People have even been disenrolling from programs that are not included in the rule, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), according to Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, the parent organization of Hunger Free NYC, which helps enroll people in benefits.

“They don’t believe they’re not going to be affected by this,” Berg said. “People are voluntarily giving up thousands of dollars worth of food when they’re desperately poor because [they think] the alternative is having a parent deported.”

If New Yorkers who are concerned about their legal status disenroll from SNAP—the federal program formerly known as food stamps—it will be up to the city and state to pump more funding into food pantries and supplemental food security programs, Berg added.

Fewer people enrolling in Medicaid, the low-income health insurance program that receives about half of its funding from the federal government, could similarly place a greater burden on the city and state. NYC Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, serves low-income New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status or whether they have insurance—something the city has recently sought to formalize through its creation of NYC Care. So do specially designated community health centers. But if fewer patients have Medicaid coverage, that could result in a loss of revenue for these safety net facilities.

The Community Healthcare Association of New York State (CHCANYS) projects that in one year, as many as 95,000 people could disenroll from Medicaid statewide, leading to $100 million in lost Medicaid revenue for community health centers. And without insurance, more people are likely to forgo preventive care and chronic disease management in favor of more costly emergency room visits, added Rose Duhan, president and CEO of CHCANYS.

“It’s not just the impact on the individual, but the impact on the community,” Duhan said in an interview Monday. “In terms of public health, it can really have a wide-ranging impact.”

At this stage, advocates say education is crucial to minimize the impact of the new policy. “Our biggest concern is we think a lot of decisions are being made based on fear and not actual facts,” Duhan said.

The final public charge rule explicitly states that it does not apply to U.S. citizens or protected groups such as asylees and refugees, and that one person’s use of a public program will not be counted against someone else in their household who is not listed as a beneficiary. It also provides exemptions to the rule: For instance, people who are pregnant or under 21 would not have Medicaid enrollment counted against them.

In an effort to provide accurate information, the city has posted a FAQ online and worked with community-based organizations to disseminate information in multiple languages. Many local groups are planning a new round of community forums now that the public charge rule is slated to take effect. But those working to keep people informed about the rule say misinformation has also been widespread, including from some local ethnic media outlets.

“The public charge rule takes into account other factors besides just use of benefits, and that makes it a little less clear cut and harder to explain to folks,” said Rebecca Telzak, director of health programs at Make the Road, which is planning to offer both group workshops and one-on-one consulting on the rule.

Those who have questions about whether they will be affected by the updated public charge rule can call 311 and say “public charge” to access city-funded legal advice. They can also call 212-659-6188 to get free legal services from LegalHealth.