Front-page news poses a stark reminder that the fate of the “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought here as children, remains unresolved, as three bills addressing the issue failed in the Senate. That’s a huge problem for those who are or would be covered by DACA, but it’s far from the Trump administration’s only line of attack against immigrants.
There’s another attack, one you won’t find on the front page. It comes to us through a leaked proposal for a policy that would, without congressional approval (it’s a rule change, not a law), change how immigration authorities weigh the receipt of public benefits in determining the status of legal immigrants already here or those seeking to enter the United States.
The leaked proposal involves what’s known as the “public charge” determination. When immigrants seek to enter the country or upgrade their immigration status, say from someone temporarily in the country to permanent resident, the official procedure requires a determination of whether the applicant might become primarily dependent on government benefits (some, like refugees and asylum seekers, are exempt). The draft of the new rule would increase the number of immigrants caught in this net. It significantly expands the scope of benefits under consideration, and it considers benefit receipt by any person in the family, including children of immigrant parents, children who themselves may be citizens.
For example, under the proposal, a child of immigrants could threaten her family’s ability to get permanent status by attending a Head Start early education program.
Only cash benefits and long-term care paid for by the government are considered in public charge determinations. But the draft rule adds the following benefits to the mix: Affordable Care Act subsidies that help people buy private insurance; most of Medicaid; CHIP (children’s health coverage); nutritional support, food assistance for pregnant women and infants; transportation; housing assistance; energy assistance.
Consider the incentives this would create. An economically vulnerable immigrant family, here legally (undocumented immigrants already have little access to these benefits), would have to decide whether getting help to afford food or housing would be worth the threat to reuniting their family; whether putting their child in preschool would block their path to a green card; whether a pregnant woman could get access to prenatal services or a nursing mother could get nutritional support for herself or her newborn without hurting their chances to stay in the United States.
It’s hard enough to be poor here. It’s a lot harder to be poor, immigrant and trying to play by a set of rules that everyone agrees is a tangled mess. And yet, the families targeted by this proposal are not just here trying to make a better life for themselves and their kids. They’re trying to do so while abiding by laws and requirements that are already tilted against them.
Moreover, restrictions on benefit receipt for legal immigrants already exists, including five-year post-entry bans for most income-based safety net benefits. Perhaps for this reason, research finds that among those with low incomes, immigrants participate less than native-born families in safety net programs, and conversely, depend more on labor market earnings. Other research on the fiscal impacts of immigration to the United States finds that second-generation immigrants, in particular, “are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.” That’s partly because second-generation immigrants avail themselves of educational opportunities, which in turn raises their earnings, spending and tax payments.
By incentivizing disinvestment in these children, however, the draft rule has the strong potential to undermine latter generations upward mobility, and thus, their contributions to society. The rule’s likely outcome is not that immigrants won’t come to America or try to stay here. It’s that they’ll avoid risks to their legal status by not pursuing the medical, nutritional and housing support they and their children need.
The result is that immigrant children will be increasingly disadvantaged as they age. Low-income children who get nutritional and housing support, quality preschool (which defines some, not all, Head Start programs), and so on, have been found to grow into healthier adults, with better education and employment outcomes than similarly placed children who did not get those benefits. Such people are thus able to make a more lasting contribution to society, as opposed to generating costs by needing public support. In other words, all we’d be doing under the rule is, by disinvesting in a segment of our future population and labor force, spiting ourselves by undermining the future contributions of those who would be our fellow Americans.
The most prominent, visible part of the immigration debate right now is, of course, the fate of the dreamers. The heat generated by that debate reveals the passions it invokes. But based on the potential damage it could mete out, this leaked rule deserves that same amount of scrutiny. Moreover, because it is a rule change, not legislation, it risks flying under the radar. Those of us concerned about the well-being of vulnerable families trying to do the right thing, to play by the rules, to raise healthy, productive children, must shine a bright, critical light on this proposal, revealing it for the mean-spirited, counterproductive attack it is.