New green card rules scare thousands into dropping benefits, like food stamps

On Monday, a new immigration rule called the “public charge” rule went into effect nationwide, preventing certain people who use particular public benefits for 12 months or longer from obtaining lawful permanent residency, otherwise known as a green card. The benefits subject to the rule include SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which is called CalFresh in California, housing assistance such as section 8 and MediCal.

Since the rule was announced in late 2018, it has caused immigrants, most of whom are not affected by the public charge rule, to unenroll from their benefits or fail to apply, despite demonstrated need. For recipients or prospective applicants of CalFresh, the chilling effect has caused immense confusion, fear and anxiety.

CalFresh provides a modest food budget to recipients that can be used at grocery stores, corner stores, farmers’ markets and other retailers. Benefits can be used for any food, except hot food or restaurant food, and also to purchase seeds and plants to grow fruits and vegetables. People of any age can use CalFresh, including people who have a regular income and people who are experiencing homelessness.

Alicia, a Bay Point resident who has applied for a U-Visa, which is a nonimmigrant visa granted to victims of serious crimes and their family members, said that she was confused about how the rule would impact her, and was fearful of negative consequences because she uses CalFresh for her family.

“I'm a little bit scared because I received medical and food stamps for my kids,” she said. “And I'm worried that this will affect me in the future and that I may not be able to get my residency one day. I wanted to drop my benefits to terminate them, and then that would make it much more difficult for me.”

Alicia is exempt from public charge inadmissibility as a U-Visa applicant, as are U.S. citizens, including those related to noncitizens who are subject to the rule, refugees, asylees, Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas, certain nonimmigrant trafficking and crime victims, individuals applying under the Violence Against Women Act, special immigrant juveniles and others to whom the Department of Homeland Security has granted a waiver.  

“Even though we work really hard, sometimes we need to return to these public benefits programs in order to make ends meet,” Alicia said. “And so it's really difficult because now we're even more intimidated to receive these programs. And in a lot of cases, we have our children here and they need help in order to be able to eat.”

Alicia has already been waiting several years for her U-Visa. And the waitlist is getting longer and longer, said Juliana Morgan-Trostle, a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid. She said that applicants might expect to wait up to ten years, with no formal protection from deportation during the waiting period.

J. Raul Gutierrez, a pediatrician at UCSF who runs a clinic for newcomer immigrant children and families, said that CalFresh is an effective program for combatting food insecurity and improving long-term health outcomes, and that low-income families he sees with children who use CalFresh are more likely to be in good health than those who do not use it.

He said that families face impossible decisions when it comes to weighing their families’ health against their immigration status.

“The choices we’re weighing against each other are, do I enroll in the program and get rid of some type of repercussion where my family might be separated, or someone might be deported, or maybe someone might not be able to be reunified in this country, or do I sacrifice the health and nutrition of my family?” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez also explained that the dropout rate for CalFresh in the face of the public charge rule is estimated to be anywhere from 15% to 35%. He said this means that up to 4,000 to 6,000 people in the Bay Area alone might forgo nutrition assistance.

According to a study from the UCLA Center for Health Policy research, the chilling effect—the amount of people who will be discouraged, inhibited or prevented from using CalFresh—in the Bay Area is estimated to be 131,000 people. Nearly 70 percent of the California residents projected to disenroll from health care and nutrition assistance benefits would be children.

Tia Shimada, a co-author of the UCLA study and the Director of Programs at California Food Policy Advocates, said that the study also investigated the broad economic impacts of people withdrawing or failing to enroll in benefits.

“We looked at an estimated $1.67 billion in lost federal benefits coming to individuals in California,” Shimada said. “And that loss in benefits would ripple out in terms of economic activity, and we would see both job loss, a loss of economic output, and a loss of tax revenue because those federal dollars were no longer coming into California and supporting economies here.”

Liz Gomez, Director of Client Services at the Alameda County Community Food Bank, said that after the rule was introduced in 2018, the food bank received a large number of calls from people asking to cancel their CalFresh. She said that it is hard to assess whether people stopped coming to the food pantry for immediate food aid, and that they do not ask about a household’s immigration status in order to receive food.

“It’s really important for people to know that food from the food bank is a community resource,” Gomez said. “It’s not a federal food program; it’s here for anyone who needs help for food regardless of citizen status.”

Morgan-Trostle said that she continues to field worried questions from clients who have been misinformed about what the rule means, and how it could affect their families.

She said that these include “concerns that it can result in deportation, which actually has nothing to do with a new rule, or just concerns, generally, that it could impact the ability to become a citizen, which is also not included in the rule, or concerns that it will affect someone's ability to become a green card holder.”

Morgan-Trostle said that she is careful to explain to clients that the public charge rule only affects certain programs, excluding food banks, school free and reduced lunch, and shelters.

Priya Murthy, Policy and Advocacy Director at SIREN (Services Immigrant Rights and Education Network), said that she believes the chilling effect was the deliberate impact of the public charge rule.

“This was very much the intention of the Trump administration,” Murthy said. “Even though the public charge rule in and of itself is a big shift, and is very disturbing in terms of the changes that are going to go into effect on February 24, the reality is that it affects a small portion of the immigrant population.”

She said that SIREN leads trainings with organizations such as healthcare providers, schools and parent groups to distribute accurate information and quell unfounded anxieties. Still, Murthy said that she knows families that have dropped out of unaffected programs such as free and reduced school lunch and WIC (The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and have cancelled doctor’s appointments at community health clinics out of fear.

Gisela Sanabria, a Bay Area resident who plans to apply for a green card in the future, said that although she now knows the rule does not affect her, when she initially heard about it, she unenrolled her daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, from MediCal. She said that since she had to apply for her daughter’s insurance under her own name, not her daughter’s, it was confusing, and made her scared that it would affect them both.

After the rule was published by the Department of Homeland Security in 2019, a judge in Illinois challenged the rule’s lawfulness, delaying the rule from going into effect. The rule was then challenged at the highest level—the Supreme Court—and on February 21, justices voted 5-4 to remove an order blocking the rule.

According to the opinion, a person who is a public charge is defined as “‘an alien who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months).’”

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that the new rule “will protect hardworking American taxpayers, safeguard welfare programs for truly needy Americans, reduce the Federal deficit, and re-establish the fundamental legal principle that newcomers to our society should be financially self-reliant and not dependent on the largess of United States taxpayers.”

USF Law Professor Bill Hing said that the argument that immigrants are abusing welfare programs is unsubstantiated.

He said that he believes the rule exists to discourage immigration from Latin American and Asian countries, because immigrants from those countries benefit the most from family immigration categories.

“Immigrant rights folks are a bit puzzled about this proposal because there is no information that there's been an abuse of the welfare system by immigrants,” Hing said.