As yet another wave of Trump-induced panic ripples through immigrant communities, some New Yorkers are opting out of food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, and other public benefits to which they’re legally entitled, out of fear that taking advantage of them will negatively impact their immigration status or that of a family member.
After months of rumors and leaked drafts, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a proposed policy change last month that would allow the government to consider the use of certain public benefits, as well as factors such as age, income, and employment history, in determining whether someone seeking to become a legal permanent resident is considered likely to become a “public charge,” or burden. That designation–currently limited to people who need to be institutionalized long-term or receive cash assistance–can lead to a green card or visa application being denied.
If the rule were adopted, the city estimates it would directly affect 475,000 New Yorkers and cost the city some $420 million annually in public benefits support and economic activity.
But Bitta Mostofi, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, told City Council members at a public hearing on the rule Thursday that her office and other city agencies aren’t yet preparing for the new policies to take effect.
“The most important thing is to fight back to ensure that there isn’t a final rule that ever goes into effect that would inflict this harm on our communities,” she said.
“We know that the chilling effect is already real and well underway,” Mostofi added. “The focus is really on that campaign to ensure communities know that this is not a final rule and there are resources available to them to know what their individual impact might look like and to work with agencies to monitor what the impact is on the ground in terms of benefits utilization.”
The city is trying to make clear the rule would not take effect retroactively. It would also only explicitly take into account whether someone uses certain benefits: SNAP, Medicaid, subsidies for prescription drugs under Medicare Part D, and public housing or rental assistance.
The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers directly impacted by the rule (about 400,000 of the 475,000) would be people who are not eligible for such benefits to begin with; rather they could be deemed public charges because of their age, pre-existing medical conditions, employment history, or income. Still, it’s complicated. There are reports of people avoiding medical care for conditions like HIV in order to ensure they aren’t deemed public charges, and of families that include U.S. citizens dropping Medicaid or food stamps because one family member is still seeking a green card and they don’t want the use of those benefits to count against them.
Some of the people expressing concern about the public charge rule already have legal permanent status and wouldn’t be affected.
In its campaign to combat misinformation and try to get people to keep accessing health care and benefits, the city has set up community forums and held a two-day phone bank in early October during which it answered about 800 calls about the public charge rule. It has issued fliers in 30 languages directing people with questions about the rule to a hotline that has interpreters on hand. Meanwhile, NYC Health + Hospitals has sought to inform staff about the policy so they can provide accurate information to patients.
But with rumors flying and mistrust of the government rampant in immigrant communities under the Trump administration, the city faces an uphill battle. Many immigrant service providers who testified at the City Council hearing said more still needs to be done to minimize the proposal’s potentially far-reaching public health consequences.
“The proposed public charge rule doesn’t have to ever be finalized in order to have its intended effect, which is to drive immigrant families into the shadows and systematically deprive them of resources,” said Carlyn Cowen, chief policy and public affairs officer at the Chinese-American Planning Council, a nonprofit based in Lower Manhattan. She noted that while the city’s one-page fliers may be in available in multiple languages, the detailed online FAQ on the public charge rule is still only available in English.
Like others who spoke, Cowen said her organization has seen anecdotal evidence of a chilling effect on benefits enrollment since leaked drafts of the new public charge rule began circulating early this year.
“Community members have declined applying to Section 8 vouchers and ask to remove themselves from affordable housing waitlists they’ve been on for years,” said Cowen. “They have declined enrolling their children in early childhood education subsidies and asked if they should stop taking prescription medications so they can apply for their green card.”
Cowen said enrollment in food stamps has been hit particularly hard. “Seniors have been coming in asking to de-enroll from SNAP benefits that they rely on to put food on the table.”
The city cannot yet confirm any public charge-related impact on SNAP enrollment, Grace Bonilla, administrator of the city’s Human Resources Administration, said at the hearing.
But other city organizations have also observed a decline.
“We have a list running of families and the date they’ve come and the benefits they have either chosen to disenroll from or not enroll in because of fear of this proposed policy,” said Hannah Scott, a social services counselor and SNAP enroller at the Westside Campaign Against Hunger, a food pantry. “It doesn’t matter what I say or my colleagues say. They will not enroll.”
Scott was among those who said organizations may need direct funds to offset their clients’ loss of government benefits. “These people are going to continue to rely on the emergency food system that we’re a part of and we need supplemental funding to ease that,” Scott said.
Public comments on the rule are open until December 10 and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is seeking to file a comment on behalf of the City Council. He and others who spoke Thursday also urged people to file their own individual comments opposing the rule.