public charge

This is a chilling time to be a legal immigrant who, to make ends meet, makes use of public assistance programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) and Section 8 housing support.

Last month, the Trump Administration proposed “public charge” rule changes that would allow the government to penalize legal immigrants who use such taxpayer-funded programs and give officials the right to withhold green cards from applicants to access these entitlements. The government, under the administration’s plans, also would have power to reject people seeking visas whom they determine might wind up seeking federal financial support.

Even though the rule changes have not yet gone into effect — a public comment period (http://bit.ly/2DTq38k) is open until Dec. 10 — health-care centers that provide services to low-income residents throughout the nation are reporting that some legal immigrants are “self purging” from Medicaid and SNAP, among other programs, for fear that it will hurt chances for either acquiring a green card or having a relative get a visa.

The effects in the Yakima Valley, which has a high number of legal immigrants due to the region’s agricultural-based economy, already are being felt, according to Anita Monoian, president and CEO of Yakima Neighborhood Health Services.

“People are afraid,” Monoian told us. “Even people who wouldn’t be affected by the public charge changes. We have had people tell us they aren’t going to come see us for (medical and dental) care because then there’d be a record of it the government could access. It’s horrifying.”

Some background: For nearly a century, the United States has rejected visa and green-card requests from applicants that officials deemed “public charges” — defined as “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” Since 1999, the definition has been interpreted to mean people who rely almost solely on cash support and those who require institutional care.

But the Trump Administration, saying it seeks to promote self-sufficiency, wants to severely tighten the guidelines. Under the proposal, someone who receives any government benefits exceeding $1,821 per year would be deemed a “charge” and ineligible for a green card. Public assistance advocates say the monetary limit would pretty much include everyone on Medicaid or SNAP.

Certainly, that threshold would be surpassed quickly by Valley legal immigrants who work in the fields or in factories or other minimum-wage jobs but need help with nutrition and medical care to supplement their income.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, Neighborhood Health board chairman Donald L. Hinman detailed the stark and sweeping negative effects the new policy would have on the Yakima Valley residents. Hinman wrote that his health center’s patients “use basic needs programs to supplement their earnings from low-wage agricultural work,” and that 79 percent of patients live at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

Neighborhood Health’s big fear — already happening in some cases — is that legal immigrants would wait to seek medical help until it becomes an emergency, which not only would lead to worse health outcomes but further stress emergency rooms and urgent-care facilities. Also, the inclusion of SNAP and housing programs in the proposed public-charge rules could lead to legal immigrants endangering their health by not eating properly and not having adequate shelter.

Targeting CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) may be the most pernicious part of the changes. That would discourage parents from seeking care for their children, perhaps spawning a health crisis. Citizen children of legal-immigrant parents would be harmed if, for instance, her immigrant parents avoid housing support so as not to be branded a “public charge.”

People’s fear that using essential social services will lead to having their names shared with federal immigration officials might have consequences for everyone in the Valley in the form of the spread of communicable diseases and the domino-effect of costs from increased ER visits.

We all know that legal immigrants are a vital part of the Valley economy. To deny green cards to deserving applicants — or to keep out their relatives seeking visas — because they have used Medicaid in the past both lacks humanity and economic sense.

A report by the government’s own Social Security Administration showed that “immigrants often start their U.S. lives at substantially lower earnings, but experience faster earnings growth than natives with comparable years of education and experience.” In short, these “public charges” often become productive members of society and the tax base. And research by the Wharton School of Business shows that “immigration leads to more innovation, a better educated workforce, greater occupational specialization, better matching of skills with jobs, and higher overall economic productivity.”

Aside from the positive economic gain immigrant workers provide, denying them assistance to which they are legally entitled won’t put them on the path to self-sufficiency; instead, it would endanger their health and burden their lives.

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.