This is not only the morally right thing to do. It’s also necessary for curbing the pandemic, and its many related crises.
Several years ago, the Trump administration began leaking drafts of a rule it was readying that would deny immigrants green cards or other visas if they had been or might someday become a burden on taxpayers — formally known as a “public charge.” Simply put, this was a solution in search of a problem. Comprehensive studies have found that immigrants actually pay more in federal taxes than they receive in benefits. In fact, noncitizens (those here legally or otherwise) generally aren’t even eligible for public benefits, except under extremely limited circumstances.
So the Trump officials proposed broadening who or what counted as a taxpayer burden.
They said immigrants could be denied green cards or other visas if anyone living in their household — even U.S.-born children — was enrolled in government services, including Head Start (a federal preschool program); Medicaid; food stamps; the supplemental food program for pregnant or nursing women and their babies; and free and reduced-price school lunches.
With this sinister move, word spread like wildfire through immigrant communities. Fearful parents began disenrolling their kids from nutritional programs, health insurance and other government benefits. Some simply stopped going to the doctor. One safety-net health plan in Texas reported over a 40 percent decrease in routine immunizations such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
There was a loud outcry against this Trump policy; experts warned of a looming public health crisis. Perhaps as a result, the regulation that ultimately was finalized said children’s use of benefits wouldn’t be held against immigrant parents after all. (The final rule still did other bad stuff, of course — including imposing other forms of wealth tests.)
By then, though, the damage had been done. Confusion and misinformation had already spread, just as Trump officials intended.
A recent report from the Urban Institute found that more than 1 in 6 adults in immigrant families reported avoiding a government benefit program or other help with basic needs last year because of immigration concerns. This chilling effect was so persistent that households where every foreign-born member had already been naturalized said they’re avoiding benefits. Just to be safe.
Despite an ongoing national crisis with record levels of illness, financial stress and hunger.
“More than once, pediatricians have told us they’ve had children come in so sick and so malnourished that [Child Protective Services] had been called on these families,” said Cheasty Anderson, director of immigration policy and advocacy at Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. Struggling parents believe they’re “on the horns of this dilemma,” she said. They think they must choose between accepting food and medical assistance for their children — or face possible deportation, and thus separation from their children.
That’s what the Trump administration has conditioned them to believe.
Given trends so far — particularly those declines in childhood immunizations — advocates worry that the “public charge” rule might discourage immigrants from getting themselves or their children vaccinated against covid-19. Which would affect the well-being of not just these immigrant families, of course, but their surrounding communities as well. Some advocates have expressed frustration that the Biden administration hasn’t immediately rescinded the rule. Formal repeal is likely a ways off, assuming the administration goes through the usual (cumbersome, protracted) rulemaking process.
But even if the order that Biden signed this week was really more about marketing than action, that pro-immigrant P.R. is valuable. After all, “most of the original damage was done by messaging,” as the Center for Law and Social Policy’s executive director, Olivia Golden, told me. It can, and should, be undone by the same means.
If we want immigrant families to stay healthy — and keep their nonimmigrant neighbors healthy, too — the government needs to put better policies on the books. But it needs to rebuild immigrants’ trust in those policies, too. That part may ultimately be harder.