When the Trump administration first proposed a rule last year to prevent poor immigrants from staying in the United States, advocacy groups in Georgia excoriated the plan.
An Atlanta-based education group warned that it would hinder children from getting access to quality medical care and nutritious food. A reproductive rights group cautioned that the rule would be particularly harmful to women and immigrants of color. Civil rights advocates told the administration that the policy would “discourage people from achieving this great American Dream of citizenship.”
Despite the outcry from critics in Georgia and around the country, the administration last week finalized the contentious immigration policy, which could impact hundreds of thousands of people in the state — including those who aren’t directly targeted but fear that accepting benefits could hurt their immigration status.
The rule — which is slated to take effect in October — would change how the government determines whether someone is expected to become a “public charge,” meaning they’re likely to become dependent on the government for subsistence.
Among other things, it could make it tougher for immigrants to become permanent legal residents (green-card holders) if they use public benefits like food stamps, Medicaid or housing assistance.
A primary concern of the rule’s opponents is that uncertainty surrounding the rule will create a “chilling effect,” spurring many people who aren’t affected by the rule to drop needed benefits for themselves or their family members.
“Our biggest concern is the chilling effect that this could have on families with young children,” said Mindy Binderman, executive director of the Atlanta-based Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS).
Her group submitted comments to the administration in December asking officials to reconsider their plans. “As a result of this so-called ‘public charge’ regulation, immigrant families with very young children will be deterred, by fear, from accessing essential family supports,” like food stamps, Medicaid and housing benefits, that “they need to be healthy, strong, and prepared for school success.”
GEEARS estimated that 230,000 Georgia children under age 17 were either born outside the United States or live with parents who are not U.S. citizens.
“The regulation will target things that we think are directly related to health and safety,” Binderman told the Georgia Recorder this week. The policy “could end up affecting the health of children and really, the health of our communities.”
In Georgia, there are a total of about 225,000 noncitizens in families that receive public benefits, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank. About 580,000 noncitizens are living in the state.
It remains unclear how many people would be directly impacted by the new rule, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the think tank.
“Depending on how this is implemented, it could be used to really drastically reduce immigration, or it could be used to just make small changes in who could come,” she said.
‘I don’t want to screw things up’
Advocates say there’s been uncertainty surrounding the new rule since it was first proposed last year.
In 2018, about one in seven adults in immigrant families reported that they did not participate in benefits programs because they feared risking their green-card status, according to an Urban Institute report released earlier this year.
Although the rule would only apply to adults who don’t yet have a green card, researchers found that the proposal discouraged even some families where all noncitizens had green cards and families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens from using public benefits.
“It’s not a surprise that a lot of immigrant families just say, ‘There’s a lot of news about this and I don’t want to screw things up for the future,’” so they drop their benefits, said Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute.
In October, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms joined other mayors around the country telling the administration that the rule would compromise children’s health, hinder access to health care and hurt local economies. “It will force families to choose between the help they need and the people they love,” the mayors wrote.
Aisha Yaqoob, policy director of the organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Atlanta, also warned the administration about increased health care costs if patients fearful of using public benefits “are forced to forego routine care and rely on emergency room visits and hospitalizations.”
The Atlanta-based reproductive health organization SisterLove, Inc., wrote that the new regulation would further marginalize populations that “already have limited access to sexual and reproductive care.”
Further, the group said, “this change would skew our immigration system in favor of the independently wealthy and against those seeking opportunity in this country and people of color.”
When it announced the final rule this month, the White House said it was intended to ensure that noncitizens don’t “abuse” the nation’s public benefits.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told NPR this month that the rule was “part of President Trump keeping his promises” on immigration.
Cuccinelli came under fire for his comments rephrasing the Emma Lazarus poem on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty. He told NPR, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Federal courts are now considering the legality of the new policy. The Trump administration is facing a barrage of lawsuits challenging the regulation, including several filed by states opposed to the rule.
“The Trump Administration’s message is clear: if you’re wealthy you’re welcome, if you’re poor, you’re not,” said Bob Ferguson, the attorney general of Washington state, who is leading one of the lawsuits. “This rule is un-American, anti-immigrant and unlawful.”
Georgia is not among the states suing over the rule.