Significant numbers of immigrants, in the United States legally and illegally, are reportedly leaving federal assistance programs out of fear it could hurt their chances of obtaining permanent legal status.
Politico reports that 18 states have noticed a decline of up to 20 percent in the number of people applying for the WIC federal nutritional program for pregnant women and infants.
The decline has been attributed not just to a robust economy, but a rumored federal rule change by the Trump administration regarding eligibility to obtain green cards based on prior use of government assistance programs.
“Under a provision known as public charge, U.S. immigration law has for more than a century allowed officials to reject admission to the country on the grounds that potential immigrants or visitors might become overly reliant on the government,” according to Politico. “But until now, officials have looked narrowly at whether someone would need cash benefits such as welfare or long-term institutional care.”
The news outlet claimed there is a move within the Trump administration to include a larger array of services such as programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or commonly known as food stamps), Head Start, Medicaid and WIC.
WIC, first launched in 1974, has traditionally been for the most part immigration status-blind regarding eligibility.
When Trump took office, there were 7.4 million women and children enrolled in WIC. As of May, the most recent data available, the number had dropped to 6.8 million.
Similarly, there were 42.7 million enrolled in SNAP in Jan. 2017, which has declined to 39.3 million as of May, or a difference of 3.4 million.
The evidence the Politico piece offers that part of the decline is due to the possible Trump administration rule change is anecdotal. Any change to federal regulations regarding the programs would have to go through a public comment period before being adopted, and would likely be challenged in court before taking effect, meaning a final determination could take several months or years.
“It’s a stealth regulation,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration attorney at Dickinson Wright in El Paso, Texas regarding the possible change to WIC. “It doesn’t really exist, but it’s being applied subliminally.”
Jennifer Mejias-Martinez, who works with the WIC program in Topeka, Kansas, recalled receiving a panicked call from an immigrant family wanting to unenroll after hearing a report on Univision that receiving government benefits could hurt their chances in immigration proceedings.
“They were very, very scared,” Mejias-Martinez said. She tried to reassure them that the policy had not changed, but they dropped from WIC anyway.
“It made me very sad, and quite frankly upset,” she said.
A WIC administering agency in Longview, Texas reported losing an estimated 75 to 90 participants per month to public charge fears, according to Politico.
The Trump administration has argued that it is not trying to alter immigration law, but clarify and enforce existing statutes.
“The goal is not to reduce immigration or in some diabolical fashion shut the door on people, family-based immigration, anything like that,” said Francis Cissna, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at the National Press Club earlier this month.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees WIC, is conducting multiple studies looking into why eligible families are not participating in, or choosing to drop their enrollment from, the program.
“The USDA is committed to the health and well-being of all WIC eligible mothers, infants and children and supports families seeking assistance,” the agency said.
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