Yesterday morning, I was attending a meeting of the South Alameda County Collaborative for Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth and Children of Migrant Families (yes, that’s a mouthful). It was my first meeting back since having a baby, and it also happened to be a meeting in which we heard a presentation on public charge, from one of the staff at the Alameda County Social Services Agency.
In the middle of her presentation about the new Public Charge Rule, one of our collaborative members announced that the Supreme Court had just made a ruling, in a 5–4 vote, that did indeed expand the definition of “public charge,” making it likely that immigrants utilizing certain public benefits could be denied citizenship.
While the government has historically been able to block immigrants who were likely to become a “public charge” from gaining permanent residency, the term has never formally been defined. It was used primarily to classify immigrants who received cash benefits from the government.
Under the Trump administration and recent rule changes, “public charge” has broadened to include those who receive noncash benefits, including non-emergency Medicaid, supplemental nutrition, Section 8 housing, and federal housing assistance. It has also added factors such as age, financial resources, employment history, credit score, English proficiency, education, and health into determinations about immigration status. These regulations apply to any persons applying to enter the U.S. as well as those applying for permanent residency.
Developments around public charge regulations are ongoing and will continue to be contested in our justice system, yet the new rule has already spread a spirit of fear, confusion, and uncertainty for many immigrants. Many vulnerable individuals are being deterred from receiving government benefits because of shifting public charge regulation, and fears that it could impact their status.
Here are some important notes, especially for those living in Alameda County: (taken from Alameda County’s Public Charge and Immigration Resources page)
- Public charge does not apply to every immigrant. There are many categories of immigrants that are exempt from the new public charge rule, including: Naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, special immigrant juvenile status, U-Visa and T-Visa holders, Violence against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitioners, Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary protected status (TPS), and Afghan and Iraqi Special immigrants
- Public charge does not apply to all benefits. Some of the benefits that are excluded from the new rule include: Medical for children and pregnant women, disaster relief, school nutrition programs, WIC, foster care and adoption, Head Start, Earned Income Tax Credit and child Tax credit. Those who receive these benefits will not be impacted by the public charge “test.”
- The use of public benefits alone will not make a person a public charge. The new rule considers a “totality of circumstances” to make determinations, not only enrollment in these benefits.
- U.S.-born children’s use of benefits will not be counted against a parent in the public charge test. These children are eligible to receive benefits and should continue to do so, and their parents’ cases should not be impacted.
- Eligibility for public benefits and services in California is not affected by the changes to public charge. The rules for California’s benefits has not changed, and the changes being implemented are applied only to federal policies.
- An individual’s personal information is protected when applying for public benefits in Alameda County. The Social Services Agency of Alameda County will not grant access to the federal government to information that will enforce immigration action, and will protect the identities of recipients.
In the face of growing fear, panic, and confusion about the impacts of the public charge ruling, I am reflecting on a few important realities:
- This ruling reveals the Trump administration’s continued attack on the poor. Despite our country’s longstanding history of being a place of opportunity for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the reality that many European immigrants who came to this country were poor, these policies clearly penalize immigrants for seeking better opportunities in this country. Under new public charge rules, immigrants whose current income is below 125 percent of federal poverty level would be considered as a public charge. Such policies judge a person by their current wealth level and ignores the economic contributions, labor, and potential that many immigrants provide. Our country’s movement towards allowing immigration only for highly educated, affluent, and comfortable individuals is not only discriminatory, but is a detriment to our country’s future.
- This ruling is rooted in racism and perpetuates white supremacist and nativist ideologies. This decision ironically came on International Holocaust Remembrance Day as well, as the 3 year anniversary of Trump’s travel ban for those coming from predominantly Muslim countries. Public charge rules were once used to exclude tens of thousands of German Jews who were trying to flee Nazi oppression, and are now impacting many people from around the globe who are similarly seeking refuge from war, violence, and oppression. The vast majority of these people are not white -coming from Asian, Latin American, and African countries- and the narrative around individuals being a “public charge”are now being paired with the conservative notion that poor people of color are sucking up government resources. The current public charge ruling perpetuates the racist and classist notions of “anchor babies” and “welfare queens,” and and continues to judge, exclude, and harm people of color.
- This ruling blatantly jeopardizes the health, safety, and well-being of immigrants all around this country, especially families and children. While the legal battles surrounding the public charge rules are still unfolding, the impact is already evident. Millions of immigrant families are deterred from seeking programs that would allow them to stay healthy, strong, productive, and thriving in this country. Consequently, various medical associations, including the Washington Medical Association have spoken out in opposition, stating: “Though DHS claims the regulation is intended to promote self-sufficiency, there is no evidence that chilling the use of health and nutrition benefits will result in an increase in income, employment or educational status of immigrants…These sweeping and detrimental changes will ultimately result in far greater costs to the public’s health than any purported benefit offered by DHS.”
- This ruling stands in opposition to a Biblical mandate that we as Christians have, to care for the poor, the immigrant, and the vulnerable in our midst. There are hundreds of verses that one could look at to prove this, but I am reminded of a few:
“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
“God makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; God loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18–19)
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6–7)
As our current administration continues to build walls and divide people, how can we as people of faith respond? How do we continue to speak out against racist, classist, exclusive, and harmful policies that perpetuate division and disparity?
Though we may be tempted to believe that those of us who are here “legally” somehow earned our citizenship or are deserving of certain privileges, we must remember that as Christians, our allegiance is first to the kingdom of God, not to any political entity or nation, and that our responsibility is first to obey the law of God by advocating for justice, loving the immigrant, and caring for our fellow human family.
Let us pay attention to what’s happening in our country and truly love the foreigner among us.
Let us remember that a person’s worth is not determined by their credit score, income level, or country of origin.
Let us remember that we belong to each other.