Buying fresh vegetables for children, heating an apartment, using Medicaid to manage diabetes. Those are all legal means of support provided by the government for low-income residents of the United States.
But a new rule in the works from the Trump administration would make it difficult, if not impossible, for immigrants who use those benefits to obtain green cards.
New York City officials estimated that at least a million people here could be hurt by this plan, warning that the children of immigrants seeking green cards would be most vulnerable.
That’s because if applicants use any welfare benefits, even for children who are United States citizens, that could indicate they would be a burden on government resources. “What feels deeply concerning,” said Bitta Mostofi, New York City’s commissioner of immigrant affairs, “is the impact on the welfare of children, period.”
Since only leaked drafts of the rule have been available and the final version is still weeks away from being published, the full effects are not calculable. But here is what we do know:
What is the current rule?
The administration’s plan is based on the more than 100-year-old law of “public charge,” later defined by government guidance in 1999: A person who is very likely to become “primarily dependent” on government services cannot become a legal permanent resident. The rule also applies to visa applicants from abroad or people seeking to extend a temporary visa within the United States.
Currently, only cash benefits, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or long-term institutional care are factors considered when determining if a person is likely to become a “public charge.”
The rule as it stands now excludes benefits such as immunizations and free or reduced-price school lunches. Unauthorized immigrants are already ineligible for nearly all public benefits.
How could the rule change?
The proposal is set to also include: children’s health insurance; Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Plan (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps); Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC; tax credits for low- to moderate-income families; and housing and transit subsidies. Any applicant — or any dependent — who has used such benefits in the past 36 months could be ineligible.
Details about the proposed rule come from an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the plan could still change.
Immigration caseworkers place more weight on those factors than others, like age and health, in determining whether green card candidates are most likely to become dependent on government assistance.
Why is the administration doing this?
The administration does not want to admit immigrants who would be a burden to American taxpayers or take away benefits that could be used for citizens. More than half of all immigrant households use one or more public benefits, according to the administration, referencing a 2012 study from the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research group that advocates restrictions on immigration.
“The administration is committed to enforcing existing immigration law, which is clearly intended to protect the American taxpayer by ensuring that foreign nationals seeking to enter or remain in the U.S. are self-sufficient,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.
Who is at risk?
There are about 400,000 New Yorkers who live in households totaling 1 million people who receive at least one federal public benefit out of 10 possible benefits, according to city documents shared with The New York Times.
In May, New York City officials presented those numbers to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is reviewing the rule for publication. The city emphasized it was a conservative estimate based on 2016 data.
According to a 2018 city report, approximately a million people live in a household where at least one person is an undocumented immigrant.
“It doesn’t make sense when you’re trying to advance a lofty goal of health and safety for everybody to parse out documented, undocumented,” Ms. Mostofi said.
Teresa, 54, who came from Honduras in 1994, and is in the country legally with temporary protected status, uses Medicaid for her diabetes.
She asked to be identified only by her first name so as not to jeopardize her green card eligibility. Her daughter, a United States citizen who is an auxiliary police officer with the New York Police Department, would sponsor her.
She said she pays taxes, and works as a waitress and takes care of children.
“This is a humiliation, what Trump is doing for the people that are using it,” Teresa said last week in Spanish in the offices of her lawyers at the Legal Aid Society of New York. “Because if someone has worked here they should have the right to these benefits.”
Most public benefits are only intended to be temporary, to help people who may already have jobs become self-sufficient. WIC helps women pay for food and provides education and doctor referrals, and does not ask for immigration status.
Diana Martinez, 35, works as a breast-feeding counselor at the Ridgewood location of a WIC clinic for Public Health Solutions, a nonprofit providing services to 40,000 people in New York City.
Ms. Martinez used WIC four years ago when she was pregnant with her son and when she was a green card holder, from Nicaragua. She is now a citizen.
“We are talking about the health of children,” Ms. Martinez said. “There shouldn’t be anything negative about that.”
But yet, she added, people told her they are still fearful of enrolling in public benefits because the government would have their information.
Will this plan actually go through?
When the government publishes the rule, there will still be a public comment period.
Already, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared he would sue if the administration penalizes people accepting “basic safety net provisions.”
Susan Welber, a lawyer in the Law Reform unit at Legal Aid, reminds clients that the rule has not changed yet.
“We want to make sure that they understand that between a rule that may change in the future and the very real needs that they and their family members have now, they should take care of their families,” she said.
Correction: August 13, 2018
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of households in which immigrants who could be affected by a Trump administration plan live, it is households totaling approximately 1 million residents, not 1 million households. Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the status of Teresa, who uses Medicaid for her diabetes. She has temporary protected status. She is not an undocumented immigrant.