Nonprofits say new rule would force immigrants to choose between citizenship and health, food

central texas food bank client

Austin nonprofit leaders say a new rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security will deter thousands of people, including U.S. citizens, from using federal assistance programs to which they are legally entitled so as not to risk their residency status. As a result, more people across the country will make the hard choice between basic needs and citizenship.

Iliana Gilman, executive director of El Buen Samaritano, an Austin nonprofit that offers medical care, a food pantry, and literacy services to more than 10,000 people, regardless of their immigration status, calls the proposed changes “inhumane.”

“This is a tactic that sets up people to fail,” said Gilman. “It’s cruel on so many levels.”

The proposed changes would affect any immigrant seeking legal permanent resident status, often called a green card, which is granted predominantly in cases of family reunification. Green-card holders can apply to become naturalized citizens. There are hundreds of thousands of green card holders in Texas and another 100,000 are added each year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Right now, the rules state that a person seeking a green card can be denied if they are considered a “public charge,” meaning they rely predominantly on cash-assistance benefits or long-term care in an institution.

But the proposed changes would expand the definition of a public charge to include any immigrant with a low income who has a history of using  – or who might use in the future – benefits like Medicaid, SNAP or food stamps, or housing vouchers, and possibly the children’s health insurance program CHIP. The effect would have a ripple effect in families and households where even one person’s status could be at risk. For example, parents who are green card holders and receive food stamps might disenroll from that program to protect their status, and also disenroll their U.S. citizen children from the free or reduced-price lunch program at school for fear it would jeopardize their path to citizenship, says Kathy Green, director of advocacy and public policy for Central Texas Food Bank.

A 60-day comment period, which ends Dec. 10, could lead to a delay on when the changes go into effect, but nonprofit leaders say it’s likely the comments will delay but not dispel the changes. The Center for Public Policy Priorities reports that about 25 percent of Texas children, about 1.8 million, have at least one parent who is not a U.S. citizen, and nine out of 10 of those children are U.S. citizens whose are eligible for public assistance programs.

“The effects of hunger on children are so much more devastating than they are for adults,” said Green. But, she adds, if a family has to choose between feeding their children now and the chance they may not obtain permanent citizenship and possibly be separated from their kids, she said, “Well, that’s a hard choice.”

El Buen and the food bank expect more people will forego programs they are legally entitled to and try to get by on emergency medical services and food pantries. “I don’t know if there’s a way we can fully prepare for it,” said Green. “We’re going to see a bigger group of people who are sick and hungry.”

Gilman says the proposed changes are already having an effect and will continue to negatively impact the entire community. “The fact of the matter is immigrants are embedded in the fabric of Austin. You can’t separate the health of our community by race.”

PHOTO: Maria Estrada picks up food at the St. John’s Mobile Food Pantry distribution for herself and her son, who has a mental disability. Contributed by Central Texas Food Bank.

NOTE: This article was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on December 2, 2018.
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