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Neighborly neglect

Denying immigrants access to the safety net would have terrible consequences for us all

Bad luck and hard times can hit any of us—and when that happens, there should be something to keep us from falling into destitution while we work to get back on our feet. That’s why most Americans agree that it’s important to have a safety net, and it’s in our best interest to make sure that anyone who needs this help in an emergency can access it without fear. But recent proposed changes to immigration policies could mean that immigrant families and their U.S. citizen relatives will no longer be able to access these crucial programs without risking their ability to stay in the country.

For more than 100 years, federal immigration law has contained a “public charge” provision. Someone is considered a public charge if they are likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” Anyone seeking a visa to come to the U.S. or anyone already here with a temporary visa who is applying for a Green Card must demonstrate that they, or someone in the United States sponsoring them, can provide for them and their dependents so they won’t be dependent primarily on public programs.

A recent proposal from the Trump administration would substantially expand the public charge test to include benefits from many more programs. If these changes take effect, using programs like Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and even educational benefits like Pell Grants would count against you.

Many of these programs are commonly used by people with full-time jobs who are paying taxes and contributing to the economy. The Center for American Progress estimates that if this test were applied to all Americans, more than 100 million people—about one-third of the U.S. population—would fail. The changes would apply to anyone seeking an immigration visa or legal permanent residency, all immigrants who have come to the U.S. legally or are trying to enter legally.

The proposed rule would have an especially harsh impact on pregnant women and new mothers, because they would become afraid to access the basic health care needed at this especially vulnerable time. Children may lose access to benefits that would have meant better health, educational achievement, and earnings over the long term.

This would hurt all Americans, immigrant and native-born alike. We are all better off when children can get the care they need to become healthy adults. We all see health benefits from increased access to immunizations and routine health care. Society and the economy improve when everyone who can work is able to find a decent job because they’ve had access to education and job training.

It doesn’t benefit anyone to make immigrant families go hungry, or to scare families away from seeking out health care when they need it. It just makes them, and our whole community, worse off. American values are about helping people move forward and up—–not back down into sickness, hunger, and poverty.

It’s important to remember that right now these proposed changes are still just a draft. After the administration formally publishes changes, there will be a period for public comment. Advocates will be active during this comment period, and you can further those efforts by contacting your federal representatives and senators to express your concern with the proposed changes.

Courtney Cullison is a policy analyst with Oklahoma Policy Institute.