Op-Ed: Trump administration’s proposed anti-immigrant rule hurts children

Overlooked in the weekly political chaos, a regulation has been quietly proposed by the Trump administration that will deny green cards to any lawfully residing immigrants who access key “safety net” programs. These programs — which include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Section 8 housing and Medicaid — offer protection and support to millions of people now referred to by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as “public charges.” In proposing this rule, the White House made official its view that these legal residents are a drain on national resources, taking benefits that could better serve U.S. citizens. DHS’s stated intent is to “better ensure that aliens subject to the public charge inadmissibility ground are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities.”

Lawfully residing immigrants seeking both a green card, either through family petition or employment-based visas, and access to public benefits may — with the passage of this new rule — risk the government’s designating them as public charges. Those with this determination may be compelled to pay a minimum of $10,000 to see their green card applications moved forward, according to a DHS summary of the proposal.

The public charge regulation attempts to protect immigrant children under the new rules, as it leaves out the Head Start programs, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and some school-based benefits (such as free or reduced lunch) from the inadmissibility considerations, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition. However, the impacts of this allegedly budget-cutting rule could prove extremely detrimental for children.

In 2016, 10.4 million citizen children in the U.S. had at least one non-citizen parent. Over half of these children had some type of Medicaid or CHIP coverage. The loss of Medicaid for those who might be forced to unenroll could lead to adverse health outcomes including untreated illnesses and unaddressed chronic issues. Families who don’t understand this complex and ambiguous rule may assume that all family members, including children, will lose their health care, leading to fewer check-ups, fewer vaccinations and an increase in child illness. Although only adults qualify for SNAP benefits, they are used to feed entire families. Without such benefits, children may suffer from food insecurity or malnutrition. Unfortunately, these would only be the initial impacts. They do not even take into account the cognitive and developmental needs of children.

Prolonged parental stress and anxiety, easily generated by issues like financial and housing insecurity, lack of nutrition or lack of affordable healthcare, can produce toxic stress in children. This stress, if triggered by multiple sources, can affect a child’s developing brain, leading to cognitive impairments and higher risk of adult illnesses such as heart disease, substance abuse and depression. Supportive and responsive relationships with caregivers can mitigate and even reverse these childhood effects; however, the stress that comes from choosing to either access these potentially critical public benefits or risk being denied a green card, may leave parents preoccupied, frightened and unable to fully support their children. Eighteen states have seen enrollment drop “up to 20 percent in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) federal nutrition program for pregnant women and children” since rumors of the proposed changes surfaced in August.

The DHS estimates a $2.27 billion annual reduction in transfer payments will result from the unenrollment from and foregone enrollment in these public benefits. DHS also claims that it will see decreased costs, since the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will have fewer forms to process, all at the expense of immigrant families.

Once the rule is officially published, there will be a 60-day public comment period. For those inspired to submit comments, visit the forum on regulations.gov. You can also call your representative. The proposed rule does not require congressional approval, but Democrats and Republicans alike, including Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, are formally opposing it and will most likely submit their own formal comments. For further information or for assistance in writing comments, members of the MIRA Coalition will be holding an information session and comment-writing workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at 5 p.m. in the Curtis Hall Multipurpose Room.

It’s unconscionable for a nation as wealthy as ours to target with financial punishment the most desperate and precarious among us, many of whom are the law-abiding parents of young U.S. citizens, imperiling their lives, their children’s futures and the well-being of our communities.