Nina Rabin was caught by surprise when a client whose immigration case had been closed for about four years called her in August. Rabin, now the director of the Immigrant Family Legal Clinic at UCLA School of Law, hadn’t been in touch with the client ever since working on the woman’s application for a special visa for trafficking survivors, which later led to a green card.
But when the client recently reached out to Rabin, she was once again concerned about her status. After hearing that accessing public benefits could have immigration consequences, she was considering unenrolling herself and her three U.S. citizen children from Medicaid, despite having recently been diagnosed with a rare tumor that required surgery.
“It was extremely disturbing to me because she was very scared and making some very real choices that would have a major impact for her and her family,” Rabin told Truthout.
Across the country, attorneys and service providers are reporting similar instances of clients dropping assistance programs they have relied on for years as a result of the chilling effect triggered, in part, by recent changes to the public charge rule.
Announced by the Trump administration in August and scheduled to take effect on October 15, 2019, the final rule will make it easier for the government to deny green cards and visas to applicants using public benefits. The regulation, which opponents are calling a direct attack on low-income immigrants, expands the types of housing, health and nutrition programs covered by the rule to include non-emergency Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) and public housing. Additionally, it lays out positive and negative factors related to age, health, education and employment that federal officials will consider when deciding whether someone is “more likely than not” to depend on the government in the future.
Although the public charge rule test only applies to a narrow pool of applicants, with categories like refugees and asylees being exempt, its ripple effect can be felt across the board.
“The target is everyone, because everyone’s afraid,” said Irena Sullivan, senior immigration policy counsel with the Tahirih Justice Center.
Rule Changes Will Further Endanger People Facing Domestic Violence
For people facing domestic and sexual violence, the uncertainty created by the new public charge rule could mean staying with an abusive partner or family member when they might otherwise leave.
In September, the Tahirih Justice Center — alongside more than 40 other groups nationwide dedicated to ending domestic and sexual assault — filed an amicus brief in support of one of at least seven pending lawsuits attempting to block the implementation of the public charge rule in court. They argue that the rule forces victims to “choose between continued abuse or a semblance of freedom in which they are hungry, homeless, and without access to medical care.”
Ultimately, the organizations claim, the public charge rule would make it impossible for many people to escape abusive situations and recover from the trauma.
Indeed, research shows that physical and psychological violence go hand in hand with economic dependence, as perpetrators often exercise their power by preventing victims from driving a car, pursuing education or keeping a job. As a result, basic public benefits can be a safety net and a lifeline.
“It’s hard to overstate just all of the ways that immigration makes it much harder for survivors to establish independence,” Rabin said. “And to now have yet another way to isolate them and add more fear to all the calculations they need to make, it’s horrible.”
In response to hundreds of public comments submitted regarding the potential impact of the proposed rule on survivors, the Department of Homeland Security stated that the rule doesn’t penalize domestic and sexual violence victims and that its goal is to “ensure that those coming to the United States are self-sufficient and not likely depend on public resources.” The Department of Homeland Security also said that it will assess the totality of circumstances in a case before making a determination.
Still, as advocates point out, in placing negative weight on factors such as limited English proficiency, lower education level and employment history, the rule is likely going to disproportionately affect survivors.
“Not only will it discourage people from accessing supports that they need, but it will also punish them for the effects of the abuse,” said Grace Huang, policy director with the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.
There are exceptions to the rule. Survivors who have applied for or been granted status through certain immigration protections — such as the U or T visas for victims of crimes and trafficking, and self-petitions under the Violence Against Women Act, when the victim is married to a citizen or permanent resident — are exempt from the public charge test.
Advocates say, however, that these exemptions fall short of protecting all survivors. For some, meeting the eligibility criteria for humanitarian relief is not an option—they might hesitate to report abuse to law enforcement, or the crime they were a victim of doesn’t qualify under the statute. Others may be seeking permanent status through different legal avenues, like employment or family sponsorship.
Chilling Effects of Rule Affect Even Those Who Are Exempt From It
Moreover, in the face of such widespread fear, even survivors who are exempt from the rule are deeply worried about whether their status will be affected in the future by using public benefits.
Elizabeth Hasse, an attorney with the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, said it took her months to convince a client victim of sex trafficking who was no longer eligible to stay in a shelter not to turn down the offer of a highly on-demand transitional housing assistance program.
“She was going to have to be homeless or potentially go back to her abuser with her two children,” Hasse told Truthout. “It wasn’t that she didn’t believe us; she just didn’t trust that it wouldn’t affect her in the end.” Months later, Hasse’s client was able to find a job and move into her own apartment.
Advocates and attorneys are urging people to seek individualized consultation about their cases to avoid opting out of programs they or their U.S. children are eligible for or which are not considered under the public charge test.
Still, some victims are getting discouraged from seeking help in the first place. In one case mentioned in the amicus brief, a rape victim refused a free emergency exam even though it would not be considered a public charge. An advocate also reported that a client made the decision to stay in an abusive home out of fear of risking her pending U visa application if she accessed affordable housing.
In the end, many survivors are being left with impossible choices. On the one hand, they fear jeopardizing their chances of adjusting status and potentially being separated from their children. But, if they find themselves homeless and financially unstable, they could also be risking losing custody.
“There are two layers of abuse going on,” Sullivan says. “One is coming from the administration promoting this chilling effect and the other is coming from within their home.”