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Fear surrounds Trump’s proposed changes to benefits policy for immigrants

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President Donald Trump (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

In the drive to lower immigration numbers, the Trump administration has come up with a new way to deter and push out immigrants who don’t “merit” a place in the United States. The poor, the elderly and the infirm will find themselves unwelcome in our new America, if the changes to the “public charge” policy proposed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) takes effect. In a 447-page document released in September, DHS broadened its calculus to determine which immigrants have the potential to become “public charges,” likely to take advantage of government assistance.

The changes would expand the list of public benefits that would be the basis for rejecting people applying for a visa or green card. Currently, only those getting cash aid from programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Supplemental Social Security Income or long-term institutionalized care are deemed such a risk. Non-cash benefits would be added to the list of “negative factors” — including nutritional assistance programs, housing assistance, non-emergency Medicaid and Medicare part D.

Up to now the policy has made a distinction between those who “receive one or more benefits” and those who “primarily depend” on public assistance.

Earlier this year, San Francisco Human Services Agency identified “public charge” concerns as one of the leading reasons immigrants in The City, despite being eligible for CalFresh (nutritional assistance program), are hesitant to apply for the program. It’s important to emphasize that nothing has changed as of yet and The City’s immigrants eligible for benefits should continue to access the help they need.

DHS must first publish the proposed rule in the public register and the public will have 60 days to comment.

DHS estimates that the change could save $2.27 billion annually, and argues that the changed policy will attract immigrants who are less likely to need assistance.

At a recent fundraiser for Foundation for Excellence, a non-profit providing scholarships to indigent and bright college students in India — many of whom end up being employed in the Silicon Valley — the keynote speaker ascended the stage and recalled a time when he’d been desperately poor. Near tears, the man described how the course of his life had been altered by the benevolence of a neighbor. Recognizing his potential, the neighbor offered to fund this man’s entire college education if he managed to secure admission to one of the elite colleges in India. He did.

The neighbor could not have fathomed that the man he’d helped, Vinod Bhardwaj, would one day arrive in America, start a company called Kalpana Networks, and come to be called the father of ethernet switching.

Bhardwaj’s story is of a different time and place, but will these proposed changes eliminate opportunities for people like him? While the costs of immigrants utilizing public benefits are adequately outlined in the DHS document, it’s glaringly evident that the benefits of enabling immigrants are omitted.

Public charge is used to evaluate immigrants at two junctures: when an individual is seeking to enter the United States and when an individual is applying for a green card. So, this new rule will affect legal residents as well as family members looking to join their relatives here.

Eugene Lau of Chinese for Affirmative Action in San Francisco stated in a press release that the change would make immigration sponsorship more difficult “especially for those who are already waiting decades to reunite with their families, and deportations become further skewed against working families who access programs they help pay for.”

Besides penalizing the use of government sponsored benefits, what’s rather loosely defined and therefore more alarming, since it gives discretionary power to DHS, is a set of circumstances that could adversely influence the public charge decision. These include being under 18, over 65, having limited English proficiency, having a medical condition, having numerous children or dependents, not having private health insurance or having no employment history.

All this to keep the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free out of America. The proposal is spreading fear and confusion through immigrant communities. “My 72-year-old mother who came to live with me after my father died and who has always been a housewife, speaks limited English, and has a heart condition would likely have been rejected,” an acquaintance said.

“She has only me. Where would she have gone?” she asked.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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