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Proposed rule change would undercut efforts to address food insecurity

  • CHRISTINA MAXWELL CHRISTINA MAXWELL



Wednesday, November 21, 2018

 No family should have to choose between food and their future in this country. But that is exactly what will happen if proposed changes to a federal rule go into effect.

The Department of Homeland Security has announced a proposed change to immigration policy that would greatly undercut efforts to address food insecurity and poverty by making it harder for immigrant families to access a range of nutrition, health and housing benefits to which they are legally entitled, and that are essential to our nation’s health and well-being.

The “public charge” assessment is one factor that immigration officials use to evaluate applications for visas and green cards by identifying individuals who may be likely to become primarily dependent on government assistance. Currently, only cash assistance programs are included in public charge considerations. However, this proposed rule would greatly expand the criteria to include benefits such as SNAP (food stamps), health coverage through Medicaid, Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, and housing assistance. It would also make it easier to deny permanent residency to anyone earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($62,750 for a family of four).

The proposed rule would expansively — and unnecessarily — redefine what being a public charge means, overturning decades of precedent, and fundamentally changing who would be able to enter, and legally remain in, the United States.

If adopted, this rule is very likely to make tax-paying immigrant families afraid to seek assistance from programs that safeguard their health, nutrition, housing and economic security. Imagine being a mom forced to choose between applying for SNAP benefits to help feed her U.S.-citizen children and fearing that her family may be split up if she is deported for being a public charge. Or a dad who can’t take his child to get immunized because he can’t use Medicaid to pay for health care.

The fear and confusion engendered by this proposed rule change is already leading people to make difficult choices. Even though accessing the emergency food network would not be included in the expanded public charge definition, we at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts are already aware of people in our region who are afraid to go to their local food pantry or meal site for fear of endangering their immigration status. Unbelievably, the text of the proposed rule itself makes clear the harm that this change would bring:

“…worse health outcomes, including increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence; increased use of emergency rooms; increased prevalence of communicable diseases; increased poverty and housing instability; and reduced productivity and educational attainment.” (p.370)

Including family members, there are 50,000 people in western Massachusetts alone who will be directly impacted by this rule change. However, it is clear from the list above that harm would befall not only immigrants and their families but would hurt everyone in our community and in the nation as a whole. Medical costs will rise; reduced educational attainment and productivity will harm the economy; basic American values of family, opportunity and hard work will be undermined.

This rule has not yet gone into effect, and there is still time to oppose it. DHS is accepting public comments about the proposed rule until Dec. 10. Many organizations across Massachusetts and around the country are working together to get 100,000 unique comments submitted. We urge you to visit frac.org/publiccharge to express your opposition and voice your opinion about the harm this rule would do.

This change to the public charge rule would discourage immigrant parents on the path to citizenship, who are working hard for better lives, from using services for which they and their kids legally qualify and that protect the health and well-being of their families. It stands in direct opposition to the work of ending hunger and poverty, building healthy communities, and upholding human rights. We must stand together as a community and do all we can to prevent it from becoming reality.

Christina Maxwell is director of programs at The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.