No Vacancy

We have a friend I’ll call Jose, who immigrated to this country from Nicaragua several years ago.  He immigrated legally: he was engaged to an American, a friend of our family.  While waiting on his application for legal permanent residence – i.e., his “green card” – he was not permitted to work, and the application costs upward of $1000, so they needed to save from his fiancée’s modest salary.  Fortunately, as a legal immigrant he was entitled to apply for non-cash assistance, such as Medicaid and

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a., food stamps).  Fast forward a few years, Jose is now a proud American citizen himself, has worked and earned several promotions, and they are married with two children.  Earlier this summer he stood up in my own son’s wedding.  Sounds like the prototypical American Dream.

Which might not be possible now thanks to two recent decisions by the Trump Administration. Under the new “public charge rule,” Jose’s green card, the most important step to being able to work and ultimately become a citizen, could have been denied because of being on Medicaid or SNAP.  As a legal immigrant, he is legally able to receive those benefits, but doing so jeopardizes his ultimate goal of being able to remain in the US with the woman he loves, in a country he loves.   Such individuals face a difficult choice between their present health and well-being and their future dreams.  Moreover, another new ruling threatens to even take away that choice.  CMS recently determined that states must not only consider a legal immigrant’s income, but that of their sponsor, in determining their eligibility for Medicaid or CHIP.  Both of these policies raise the bar substantially in the ability of immigrants – legal immigrants – to obtain assistance they may desperately need.

It threatens children, too.  While the rule states that benefits received by family members would not be counted against them in the LRP process, many legal immigrants with children who may be eligible for Medicaid or SNAP will be reluctant to trust a system that has already turned against them and hold back on getting those benefits for their kids lest the rules change again.  Prior policy, in place through the prior three administrations since 1999, only considered cash benefits such as TANF in determining whether someone was likely to become a public charge and therefore denied a green card or entry into the US.  In fact, that earlier policy specifically wanted to clarify that Medicaid, CHIP, and SNAP were not grounds for being considered a public charge because that belief “deterred eligible aliens and their families, including U.S. citizen children, from seeking important health and nutrition benefits that they are legally entitled to receive. This reluctance to access benefits has an adverse impact not just on the potential recipients, but on public health and the general welfare.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are over 13.5 million Medicaid and CHIP enrollees, including 7.6 million children, who live in a household with at least one noncitizen or are noncitizens themselves and may be at risk for decreased enrollment a result of the rule.

Let’s be clear –  this is not about combatting illegal immigration.  Both of the new policies specifically refer to individuals who have been legally allowed to enter the country and purse a pathway to LRP and eventually citizenship.  It can only be interpreted as being intended to discourage any immigrants – at least those who are not affluent – from coming to the US.  It’s a huge “No Vacancy” sign being hung up on America.

Most of us have needed help at one point or another.  Many of us have been in a position to obtain that help from a family member or friend: a spare room to stay in for a while, an informal loan to get a car repaired, gift cards to a grocery store for Christmas.  But others don’t have those connections and may require a boost from the government.  We shouldn’t be holding that against anyone, including those hoping to pursue the American Dream – or their kids.

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