Both documented and undocumented immigrants fear that accepting federal aid could make them ineligible for a green card if rules are changed.
Immigrants are turning down government help to buy infant formula and healthy food for their young children because they’re afraid the Trump administration could bar them from getting a green card if they take federal aid.
Local health providers say they’ve received panicked phone calls from both documented and undocumented immigrant families demanding to be dropped from the rolls of WIC, a federal nutrition program aimed at pregnant women and children, after news reports that the White House is potentially planning to deny legal status to immigrants who’ve used public benefits. Agencies in at least 18 states say they’ve seen drops of up to 20 percent in enrollment, and they attribute the change largely to fears about the immigration policy.
The Trump administration hasn’t officially put the policy in place yet, but even without a formal rule, families are already being scared away from using services, health providers say.
“It’s a stealth regulation,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration attorney at Dickinson Wright in El Paso, Texas. “It doesn’t really exist, but it’s being applied subliminally.”
Health advocates say the policy change could put more babies who are U.S.-born citizens at risk of low birth weight and other problems — undermining public health while also potentially fueling higher health care costs at taxpayer expense. WIC — formally the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children — serves about half of all babies born in the U.S by providing vouchers or benefit cards so pregnant women and families with small children can buy staple foods and infant formula. The program is also designed to support women who are breastfeeding.
Because it benefits babies, the vast majority of whom are U.S.-born citizens, WIC is among the least politically controversial programs that the administration is said to be targeting in its crackdown.
“The big concern for all of us in the WIC community is that this program is really about growing healthy babies,” said Rev. Douglas Greenaway, president and CEO of the National WIC Association. “When any population that’s potential eligible for this program is either driven away by changes in regulation or legislation or simply by political rhetoric inducing fear there are huge personal consequences to those babies and their families.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
The immigration proposal, which White House officials are working on ahead of the midterms as a way to energize the Republican base, would primarily affect legal immigrants already in the U.S. who are seeking a green card and people applying for legal admission to the U.S. It could also affect undocumented immigrants if they want to seek legal permanent residency in the future — a change that would represent a substantial expansion of the definition of public charge.
Under a provision known as public charge, U.S. immigration law has for more than a century allowed officials to reject admission to the country on the grounds that potential immigrants or visitors might become overly reliant on the government. But until now, officials have looked narrowly at whether someone would need cash benefits such as welfare or long-term institutional care. Immigration hawks in the Trump administration are pushing to consider would-be immigrants’ use of a much broader array of services, including non-cash assistance like food stamps, Head Start, Medicaid and WIC, according to versions of the proposed rule that were obtained by news organizations earlier this year.
Undocumented immigrants do not qualify for most government aid programs, but such an expansion of public charge could apply to the whole family. In the past, if a mom was applying for a green card her own use of public benefits might be examined. Under the proposed change, her child’s enrollment in Medicaid or Head Start would weighed as a negative factor, even if that child is a U.S. citizen.
Trump administration officials have argued that they are simply trying to clarify and enforce current immigration law.
“The goal is not to reduce immigration or in some diabolical fashion shut the door on people, family-based immigration, anything like that,” said Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at the National Press Club earlier this month.
DHS, which is working to update public charge policy, is trying to “better align U.S. immigration policy with federal law,” an agency official said Tuesday.
“The administration works each day to better uphold and apply federal laws, and is always thoughtfully and carefully evaluating policy options — which in this case the public will have an opportunity to comment to fairness to the American workers and taxpayers,” the DHS official said. “Efforts to ensure our immigration processes comport with law is widely supported by the vast majority of the American electorate.”
The official argued that past administrations had “ignored” immigration law by not doing enough to ensure would-be immigrants wouldn’t be “a burden” to taxpayers.
Enrollment in WIC has been going down for a variety of reasons as the economy has improved and the birth rates decline. When Trump took office there were approximately 7.4 million women and children in the program. As of May, the last month for which there is data, the number had dropped to 6.8 million.
Government officials aren’t able to track exactly how many people have dropped from WIC or declined the benefits because they’re afraid of the public charge rule, in part because the program is immigration blind. But providers say anecdotal evidence shows the proposal is contributing to the drop-off.
POLITICO interviewed more than a dozen WIC providers nationwide who serve tens of thousands of children from Washington state, Kansas and New York state. Almost all said they have seen immigrant mothers and their children drop from WIC, citing public charge concerns. They also said they’ve fielded inquiries about whether participating in WIC could put a family at risk of either deportation or at a disadvantage in immigration proceedings.
Jennifer Mejias-Martinez, who works on WIC at the Shawnee County Health Department in Topeka, Kan., recalled getting a call earlier this year from a family who’d seen a report on Univision about public benefits being a threat to immigration proceedings.
“They were very, very scared,” Mejias-Martinez said of the family. She said she tried to calm them down and assure that the policy had not changed, but they dropped from the program anyway. “It made me very sad, and quite frankly upset,” she said.
In some cases, immigration attorneys are recommending that families drop out of all government programs, including WIC, to avoid any chance that using the benefits could negatively affect their chances of getting a green card — or even prevent a family member from being able to get a visa to visit, according to caseworkers.
Public health and immigration advocates say they now find themselves debating the ethics of encouraging people to enroll in the program to improve their children’s health while there’s so much fear the benefits might one day jeopardize their ability to stay in the United States.
“Without a draft rule being released, we don’t think it’s wise to frighten people or tell them that they’re in the clear,” said Zach Hennessey, vice president of programs and services at Public Health Solutions, a large health non-profit in New York City.
The leaked version of the proposed rule suggests benefits used before the rule is final wouldn’t be used against an applicant.
Nearly two-thirds of WIC providers, from 18 different states, reported they have noticed a difference in immigrant WIC access in the wake of the news about potential changes in the public charge rules, according to a March survey by the National WIC Association. Seventeen of the agencies reported that participants had asked to dis-enroll or be deleted from WIC records.
An agency in Longview, Texas, reported it’s losing an estimated 75 to 90 participants per month to public charge fears. In Beacon, N.Y., an agency estimated it’s lost 20 percent of its caseload. In St. Louis, Mo., a provider said it’s seen a few dozen drop in the last year.
Marshall noted he hasn’t seen the changes the administration is considering. “I will stand beside WIC and say they’ve been a great use of federal dollars,” he said.
Even as they’re considering the proposed rule change, Trump officials have already begun enacting some new restrictions. In January, the State Department instructed embassies and consulates to look at potential use of nutrition and health benefits when deciding whom to admit to the U.S.
A spokesperson from the State Department said the changes “clarify current regulations and policy guidance.”
Immigration lawyers are watching very closely to see whether the updated guidance leads to more denials based on public charge grounds.
Immigrant advocates are expected to mount a court challenge if the expanded public charge rule is finalized, but public health advocates say the damage is already being done to women and families who are afraid to use WIC.
“One way or another society is going to pay for this,” said Hennessey of Public Health Solutions in New York City. “It’s very expensive for a baby in the NICU. It’s very expensive when a child’s developmental needs aren’t met, or there’s a severe maternal morbidity event.”