Advocates decry new immigration rules

They say ‘public charge’ could scare thousands from tapping needed benefits

ADVOCATES FOR IMMIGRANTS on Thursday cast new immigration rules proposed by the Trump administration as a cruel move that will lead thousands of low-income families to shun Medicaid health care coverage and not seek other important services.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Monday that immigrants receiving an expanded list of public benefits will have that aid considered when the government determines whether anyone can enter or obtain permanent resident status in the US.

The purpose of the change, the agency says, is to clarify a law referred as “public charge,” which evaluates an immigrant’s ability to be financially independent and not rely on governmental assistance.

But a panel of attorneys and immigrant advocates, speaking a briefing at the Boston office of the nonprofit Health for All, said the rule-change will have devastating consequences for the state’s immigrant population.

“This will weaken our communities, as more of our neighbor’s lack for care and treatment for medical conditions,” said Matt Selig, executive director for Health Law Advocates, a legal organization that assists immigrants with access to health care and dealing with the high cost of medical expenses.

He predicted that even immigrant children with citizenship will be pulled off of insurance programs out of fear that their public health insurance access could impact their parents’ immigration status.

Advocates insist that such concerns were already keeping some immigrants away from seeking services even before this week’s announcement.

“In the last two years we have heard about Massachusetts immigrants not seeking services for benefits they qualify for due to fear,” said Suzanne Curry of Health Care for All.

Attorney General Maura Healey, who announced today that she is a joining a coalition of attorneys general that is suing the Trump administration over the rule change, estimated that the public charge rule could cause 90,000 MassHealth enrollees, including 20,00 children, to lose their coverage. She also estimated that as many as 60,000 enrollees in Connector Care, which subsidized coverage for lower-income residents under 65 years old, may pull out of the program.

Benefits considered for public charge, which could go into effect October 15, include the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and any federal, state, or local cash assistance for income maintenance.

The rule change would impact anyone in the US seeking lawful permanent resident status through a family petition, including anyone who is the child, spouse, or family member of a US citizen, those applying for an employment visa, and anyone seeking to change their nonimmigrant status.

A new document called an I-944 will used by the Department of Homeland Security to have individuals applying for legal status explain their ability to maintain self-sufficiency.

Questions about health insurance, including details on premium costs and deductibles, are included. Previously, only proof of insurance was needed for the process.

Released on Wednesday, the document will require individuals to disclose any past receipt of federally-funded Medicaid coverage. If the applicant hasn’t received public health insurance assistance, he or she must show how they plan to pay for any potential medical costs in the future. Questions about income from illegal drug sales and illegal activity are included, along with inquiries about credit scores.

A screenshot of an I-944, which questions public health benefits accessed. The red is to indicate text changes since the last draft of this document in 2018.

Prior to the new rule, an affidavit from a sponsor stating a person would not be a public charge and that the sponsor agreed to financially support an immigrant in the event of an emergency was sufficient to apply for permanent status.

The Boston Foundation estimates that as many as 500,000 people in Massachusetts could be impacted by the immigration policy change. About half of all noncitizens in the state have income below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. About a quarter of this population has income below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

Immigration advocates are preparing with attorneys to hold educational workshops and clinics to answer immigrants’ questions about the complex changes. Attorneys and advocates at Thursday’s briefing described several scenarios where the new public charge rule would have significant impact.

In one, they outlined the hypothetical case of a 26-year-old graduate student who is DACA recipient (a protected legal status for younger people brought to the US at an early age).

They said he works as a research assistant to pay for school, but because of his status was not eligible for student loans. He’s married to a US citizen, who is helping him apply for permanent status. They have a two-year-old daughter, who is on MassHealth, the state Medicaid program. His wife works at a teaching assistant and earns $30,000 a year.

Should he suffer an asthma attack, without health insurance, he will face a large medical bill from the emergency room visit. If he has trouble making the payments on the bill, his credit score will plummet. If the public charge test were to apply to him, the receipt of Medicaid by his daughter wouldn’t be held against him. But the family’s low income, his low credit score, and his health status would all be negative factors impacting his chance of obtaining a green card.

“This is a wealth test,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “They want all immigrants to be scared of safety net programs, even if they might not be covered by public charge.”

Some immigrants would be exempt from the new rules. Individuals applying for or re-registering for Temporary Protected Status, asylum, and refugee status applicants, and certain nationalities, including Afghan and Iraqi special immigrant petitions, or Cuban petitions for legal status would all be exempt from the new public charge rules.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.