photo: A 7-year-old boy from Guatemala is tested for Covid-19 in Stamford, Connecticut, in May.
A 7-year-old boy from Guatemala is tested for Covid-19 in Stamford, Connecticut, in May. John Moore/Getty Images

Fears of visa rejection or deportation keep immigrant families from receiving health care and food aid, despite increasingly urgent needs due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Late in April, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a request from New York and several other states to block a new Trump administration rule from taking effect. The revised federal rule prohibits immigrants who receive food, health or housing aid from getting green cards, an expansion of the 19th-century “public charge” rule blocking immigrants deemed liable to rely on the state due to poverty or disabilities.

This latest decision followed a contentious period of public comment and litigation. The court had already ruled by a 5-4 decision in January to allow the rule to proceed; the majority was unmoved by the states’ request to reconsider the rule due to the coronavirus pandemic. Immigration advocates fear that the new public charge rule will dissuade families with mixed citizenship status from applying for aid during an economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression.

Those fears are borne out by new research that shows that the public charge rule has had a major chilling effect on households that are eligible to enroll in public benefits — even those that would not be subject to the rule. One in three adults in immigrant households with a member who is not a permanent resident avoided applying for benefits in 2019, according to the Urban Institute.

“Going into the crisis when needs are very likely to increase, there was a lot of reluctance or fear to take part in programs that parents or children might really need,” says Hamutal Bernstein, principal research associate for the Urban Institute. “There is a real concern that families are not going to take part in whatever supports they or their children might be eligible for, even if there’s a great need.”

Latino and Latina households in the U.S. continue to suffer disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic. In four states — New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Utah — Latinos make up between 13 and 19% of the population but account for between 30 and 38% of Covid-19 cases, as of May 13. In Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and other places, this population has the highest incidence of coronavirus infections. Compounding the threat, mixed immigration status families are more likely to be uninsured, especially lawfully present non-citizens (23%) and undocumented immigrants (45%), per the Kaiser Family Foundation (2018). So the need is indeed great.

The Urban Institute’s research draws on a survey conducted in December 2019, two months before the new public charge rule took effect, as well as results from the year prior. Last year, more than one in seven immigrant families steered clear of non-cash benefit programs — including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a level similar to that of 2018, when the rule was first proposed.

For families most likely to be affected by consequences for future green card applications, the chilling effect was statistically significant: In 2018, 22% of households were avoiding benefits; a year later that figure jumped to 31%.

The annual survey, which looks to assess how low-income families interact with the safety net, features on over-sample of immigrant families (those with one or more foreign-born members), so researchers were able to ask specific questions about avoiding public benefits for fear of the repercussions for visa applications. The Urban Institute also found that a substantial share of households declined to participate in several programs that are not at all touched by the new public charge rule — including health coverage through the Obamacare exchanges, food aid via the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and even free or reduced-price school lunches.

“A lot of our concern is what these chilling effects portend in the current crisis,” Bernstein says. According to another study from the Urban Institute on Hispanic non-elderly populations, more than two-thirds of Hispanic adults in mixed-status families have reported a loss of employment, hours, or income due to the pandemic; 54% of families with mixed immigration status say they are experiencing food insecurity, forgoing medical care, or struggling to pay bills.

Even while immigrant families are suffering across America, they are also single-handedly supporting the nation’s food infrastructure. Undocumented immigrants make up more than half of the agricultural workforce, and they are woefully, massively exposed to outbreaks in meat-processing plants and packaging warehouses. Immigrants are essential workers at every point in the food chain — from farm hands to food processors to grocery clerks — yet they are rarely afforded the same dignity, heraldry, support, or basic health protections as other front-line workers.

Despite the pandemic, the zeal by White House advisor Stephen Miller and others in the Trump administration to restrict legal immigration continues unabated. Historically, the use of disaster relief aid by immigrants has not been a factor under the public charge rule, according to The National Law Review — but using public benefits during Covid-19 may very well affect visa applications. The research shows that families who yearn for permanent status in the U.S. are willing to endure hardship and sacrifice to get it.

The federal government has indicated that seeking Covid-19 testing or treatment specifically would not be considered a strike against visa-seekers, according to Bernstein. But for many immigrant families, fear of seeking help has already been locked in. “It’s not clear if that’s enough to reassure families to take advantage of the health services they need or other programs that they or their children need, given the extreme amount of fear and uncertainty around the rule that has built up,” she says.

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