Politics

Democrats Push Back on Plan to Make Green Cards Harder to Obtain

Public health advocates, others warn about effects of ‘public charge’ crackdown

Rep. Nanette Barragán, D-Calif., pictured here, joined with Sen. Kamala Harris and public health officials in pushing back against a proposal to make it harder for people who utilize public assistance to obtain green cards. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Democratic lawmakers are joining local health officials, community organizers and immigrant rights groups around the country in opposition to a Trump administration regulatory proposal that would make it harder for foreign nationals to obtain green cards if they have received government assistance.

Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Nanette Barragán, both California Democrats, said in a public comment submitted to the Homeland Security Department that the proposed regulation would represent “another misguided step in advancing this administration’s cruel, anti-immigrant agenda.”

Harris and Barragán said the proposed rule would “deter entire families, including citizen children not impacted by a public charge determination, from participating in essential public health, nutrition, and housing programs, and negatively impact businesses.”

In a separate public comment, the Congressional Black Caucus said the proposal would racially discriminate against black immigrants and fly in the face of Congress’ intentions when it decided against adding provisions to a 1996 immigration law that would have required the government to consider use of public assistance programs in weighing applications for immigration benefits.

“The proposed rule would cause major harm to immigrants, their families, state and local governments, health care providers, and numerous other parties throughout the nation,” said the caucus, led by Chairman Cedric L. Richmond, D-La.

The proposal, announced by the administration in October, would add Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the list of government programs considered by immigration officials when determining if an immigrant is, or is likely to become, a “public charge.”

It is a step in the administration’s efforts to move toward a merit-based immigration system, rather than the family-based system currently in place. DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said it would help “promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

Democrats have raised concerns that the proposed rule would have a chilling effect on immigrants who might be afraid to apply for public assistance if they think it would preclude them from gaining permanent legal status and eventual citizenship. Harris and Barragán said the proposal could also hurt the U.S.-born, and hence U.S. citizens, children of noncitizen parents who would be afraid to apply for healthcare assistance.

The uninsured rate among citizen children with noncitizen parents fell 10 percentage points between 2008 and 2016, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the left-leaning Urban Institute, while participation in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as CHIP, rose by 15.5 percentage points.

Roughly a fifth of all children enrolled in government insurance programs for low-income Americans — about 6.8 million kids — are citizens with noncitizen parents, according to the analysis.

A separate analysis released last month by the nonprofit California Health Foundation estimated 700,000 to 1.7 million children with medical needs, including asthma and diabetes, could be unenrolled from medical coverage as a result of the Trump administration proposal.

“The proposed public charge rule puts the recent coverage progress for citizen children at risk,” the Urban Institute researchers wrote.

Opposition to the administration’s proposal came from all corners of the country. The Baltimore City Health Department, the California Inland Empire Community Collective, Michigan’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Alabama Food Bank Association all submitted comments ahead of a Monday deadline.

“The new rule will create fear and confusion that may dissuade immigrant communities, regardless of whether they are impacted by the rule, from seeking needed food,” said Laura Lester, the food bank association’s director. “We are worried that food pantries in our network, mostly churches, are already reporting that immigrant families they serve are becoming fearful of receiving any food assistance.”

Eileen Higgins, a Miami-Dade County commissioner, said in a comment that the proposal would force “families to keep food off the table and stop taking their kids to see a doctor.”

“Our community is stronger when we lift each other up, when we give our communities a fair shot and a fair shake,” wrote Higgins. “This rule does the opposite: it leaves people on their own and hanging out to dry.”

DHS received more than 189,000 comments on the proposal, including some in favor. Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a far-right group, said “the interest of the American people is served when immigrants selected for admission [ . . . ] can demonstrate they are capable of providing for themselves and their dependents.”

The group said the administration “could go further” with its proposal, “particularly by including additional welfare programs used by immigrants, the proposed rule is still an enormous improvement over the status quo and a win for the American taxpayer.”

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