Public Charge and The Power of Fear

By Madison Hardee

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security officially issued a proposed “public charge” regulation that will undermine access to essential health, nutrition, and shelter for millions of immigrants and their families. This policy is an extension of Trump’s larger effort to terrify immigrant families, and we must work together to fight back. Over 1500 organizations in the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition have already spoken out against this destructive regulation. Advocates and allies can now post a public comment decrying this inhumane attack on the health and wellbeing of families, communities, and children.

For decades, our country has guaranteed immigrant families that they can seek health and nutrition assistance for which they are eligible without jeopardizing their immigration case. If this regulation is fi­nalized, we can no longer offer that assurance. The proposed rule expands the list of benefits that could be considered in a “public charge” determination to include Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), rental assistance, and even Medicare prescription drug subsidies.

This isn’t just about preventing harm that may happen in the future, it’s about the harm that is already happening. As we’ve seen time and time again with the Trump Administration, xenophobic threats from the executive branch are powerful tools for generating mass fear and confusion. Although the public charge test doesn’t apply to all immigrants, the proposal would make—and has already made—families afraid to seek programs that support basic needs. Although this regulation is just a proposal, fear of immigration consequences has already led many immigrants to disenroll themselves and their children from programs for which they are eligible.

Before joining CLASP, I was a legal services attorney providing direct representation to immigrant families. The fear my clients felt was palpable from the moment Trump was elected. One of my long-time clients was an elderly green card holder and cancer survivor who was seeking access to Supplemental Security Income. Last spring, she told me she didn’t want to proceed with her appeal because the government would hold it against her. I explained that public charge rules wouldn’t affect her when she applied for citizenship; she told me that the rules are all changing because of Trump. She no longer wanted to pursue assistance out of fear that she wouldn’t be able to stay in the U.S. and watch her grandchildren grow up. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident.

Over the past year, my colleagues at CLASP interviewed dozens of parents and more than 100 child care and early education professionals in states across the country. They heard firsthand about the devastating effects of the administration’s policies on children living in immigrant families. Through their research, they found that young children are getting less access to nutrition and health care services because of families’ fears. These findings were consistent with dozens of media reports that immigrant families are declining to obtain assistance. In Seattle, a green card holder and mother of three disenrolled her family from SNAP and in Texas, a mother stopped by an aid center to disenroll her 13-year-old daughter from Medicaid. We’re also hearing reports from our partners. In New York City, an immigrant who was recently diagnosed with HIV confided to their case manager they were considering waiting to begin antiretroviral therapy with medication obtained through the AIDS Drug Assistance Program until they “felt sick enough.”

If this rule moves forward, there is no question that many more immigrant families will avoid enrollment in critical programs due to fear of immigration consequences. A recent report from Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that a 25 percent decline in Medicaid/CHIP enrollment among citizen children with a noncitizen parent would result in an additional one million children becoming uninsured. That’s one million children who are our future workforce – our future physicians, our future inventors, our future teachers. Scaring their families away from access to healthcare is not only cruel, it’s shortsighted.

Together, we can slow this process down and force the Trump Administration to justify its cruel proposal. Click here to submit a comment today. We can also work together to make sure that immigrant families have the information they need to make decisions based on facts and not on fear. For more resources and information, visit