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Northwest organizations that work with immigrants say the 'public charge rule' is causing fear

Ashley Gross
Staff at International Community Health Services in Seattle say they've seen a decrease in the number of clients getting nutrition benefits through the WIC program because of fear about the Trump administration's "public charge rule."

Pacific Northwest organizations that work with immigrants are trying to reassure their clients who are worried they may not be able to get permanent residency because the Trump administration’s “public charge” rulehas now gone into effect.

Critics say the rule amounts to a wealth test intended to bar low-income immigrants from receiving green cards. The long-standing rule has been used by officials to bar immigrants from getting permanent residency if they were deemed likely to become a public charge, meaning they would become financially dependent on the government.

The Trump administration has expanded the criteria used to make that determination, saying it’s necessary to ensure that immigrants are self-sufficient. Now, the Department of Homeland Security will take into account whether a legal immigrant has temporarily received non-cash assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid or some housing benefits.

It’s a complicated rule that’s led to a lot of confusion among immigrants, and people who work with low-income immigrants say clients are jeopardizing their health because they're scared to use any kind of government-funded assistance program.

“I’m concerned about the fear and anxiety that this is causing,” said Aliya Haq, manager of nutrition services for International Community Health Services in Seattle. “Added to that is the food insecurity, because they’re staying away from all the nutrition programs, staying away from medical programs.”

Haq said clients have been canceling appointments, and she had to work hard to convince one family to bring in their sick baby to get checked.

The U.S. Supreme Court has lifted injunctions issued by lower courts that had blocked the public charge rule from going into effect. That allowed the Department of Homeland Security to begin implementing the new expanded rule this week.

One of the cases challenging the rule was filed by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. That case is still in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington.

Christina Wong is director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest, which distributes food to a network of food banks. She said fear is widespread among immigrant communities, but the number of people affected is not that big.

“One of the things we’re really trying to make clear is that the public-charge test doesn’t apply to most immigrant situations,” she said. “It doesn’t apply to refugees, asylees or people who are here for humanitarian purposes.”

Wong said a big concern is that parents will withdraw their U.S. citizen-born children from programs they are eligible for, such as subsidized school meals.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.