During the Covid-19 pandemic, families aren't pursuing benefits they qualify for, fearing that a Trump administration rule will affect the chances of an immigrant family member to get a green card or U.S. citizenship.
A study by the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy think tank, found that about 1 in 7 adults in immigrant families, 13.6 percent, reported not having enrolled in programs like Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and housing subsidies last year — even though they or their relatives were eligible — because of worries that it would affect their legalization efforts.
Karin, 42, who asked to be identified by only her first name to avoid government attention, is one of them. Karin, who works as a housekeeper, has lived in Los Angeles for 15 years after having fled violence in Guatemala. She and her two older daughters are trying to find a way to get employment authorizations or green cards; her youngest daughter was born in the U.S.
She has been reluctant to sign up for Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program, even though it's available to qualifying state residents regardless of legal status.
Under the Trump administration's rule changes, immigrants seeking legal status whose families enrolled in publicly funded programs could be considered "public charges" if officials determined that they might be likely to need public assistance.
The change occurred after the Trump administration expanded the definition of the term. The Department of Homeland Security had previously defined a "public charge" as someone who depended on cash assistance or government-funded long-term institutional care, but the Trump-era rule expanded the definition to include additional benefits, such as food stamps, nonemergency Medicaid, certain prescription drug subsidies and housing vouchers.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling for an "immediate review of agency actions on public charge inadmissibility."
Karin said she would rather remain uninsured until the Biden administration explicitly says that signing up for state public health insurance wouldn't classify people as "public charges" and wouldn't jeopardize her legalization efforts.
The Urban Institute found that almost 28 percent of immigrants in families with members who didn't have green cards avoided an array of public benefits they were eligible for because of the rule's "chilling effect."
Eliseo Lopez, 72, a handyman, has lived in Los Angeles for three decades. He has struggled to get enough work to make ends meet during the pandemic, and age-related ailments make it more difficult to continue working.
As a permanent resident, Lopez qualifies for retirement benefits. But he refused to apply last year out of fear that he could endanger his wife's chances of getting a green card.
"We stopped all of my wife's immigration paperwork because of Trump's anti-immigrant behavior. We always stayed on the sidelines, never asking anyone for help," Lopez said in Spanish. "I just wouldn't do anything that could potentially get her deported."
His daughter, who is a U.S. citizen, helped them financially after they ran out of savings during the pandemic. Because of the family's mixed immigration status, they didn't get any Covid-19 stimulus checks.
Lopez said that now that Biden is president, he is more comfortable resuming his wife's legalization process.
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Hamutal Bernstein, the study's co-author, said, "I think there's going to have to be a very strong information and education effort given the extended period of time and misinformation and fear and confusion around this rule."
Bernstein found that other factors are also deterring families from applying for benefits, including fears over information-sharing across immigration enforcement authorities, language barriers and challenges navigating enrollment.
'There's always fear'
Karla, 39, an immigrant from Mexico who asked to be identified by only her first name to avoid government attention, lost her job in child care during the pandemic and has been cleaning houses to make ends meet.
Her husband is an essential worker who delivers produce to supermarkets. They have three children.
"We're living just to have enough money for rent and food," Karla said in Spanish. The only additional help she recalled having received to support her three teenage boys, all of whom are U.S. citizens, has been meals through the state's school lunch program. "There's always fear, but sometimes the need wins and you apply to certain programs while afraid that it may affect your legal status in the future."
Karla said she wishes she had health insurance after she underwent traumatic emergency dental surgery two years ago.
"I just need healthy teeth I can use to eat well," she said. "I barely go to the doctor, because I don't have access to it. If something hurts a lot, I have no choice but to go to the emergency room."
Karla said that she has looked into enrolling in California's public health insurance program but that the application process has been tough.
Bernstein said, "To complement whatever the administration does to undo the rule, it will also be really important to do some very intentional education, communications, engagement with immigrant families to inform them about the policy changes—also to try to rebuild trust and reduce some of those fears of taking part in programs that they or their children may be eligible for."