As the Trump administration moves to create stricter standards for immigrants applying for residency, more families in the Richmond area are asking to pull out of public assistance programs out of fear, a trend that concerns immigration advocates and public health professionals.

“Probably every week, somebody is calling and saying, ‘I no longer want to participate in your program,’” said Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico County health departments, which oversee WIC — the federal program that provides nutritional assistance to mothers, infants and children. “It’s around fears of deportation.”

In October, the Department of Homeland Security revealed a new proposed immigration rule that would expand the agency’s authority to limit immigrants’ ability to adjust or extend their residency in the U.S. if they have received public assistance.

Although WIC is not one of the programs that would make someone ineligible under the new “public charge” definition, the changes to immigration enforcement are likely to create a ripple effect resulting in disenrollment from public assistance programs, even by eligible individuals, according to analysis by some immigration and health policy organizations.

“We’re really concerned about (the proposed rule’s) impact on immigrants and their families,” said Kim Bobo, director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, a Richmond-based nonprofit. “And we’re concerned about the overall focus of only wanting wealthy immigrants to come in. That’s clearly the context for this.”

The proposed rule expands the definition of “public charge” — a term that has been used for decades to limit the entry of immigrants deemed likely to rely on U.S. government services to live. Currently, the definition applies to certain cash assistance programs and long-term institutional care. However, the new rule definition would also include enrollment in some food, housing and health care assistance programs — such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, Section 8 housing and Medicaid.

Vox reported that the DHS received more than 200,000 comments regarding the proposed rule during a 60-day public comment period, which closed Monday. The DHS did not respond to information requests from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen stated in a September press release. “The Department takes seriously its responsibility to be transparent in its rulemaking and is welcoming public comment on the proposed rule. This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

The agency estimates that the rule change would lead to a reduction in federal and state payments to individuals for public benefits of about $2.3 billion annually due to disenrollment from public assistance programs by eligible individuals.

An analysis by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Immigration Law Center’s Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign estimates that implementation of the rule could impact 26 million people in the U.S. and 430,000 people in Virginia, including 150,000 children.

Even in advance of the implementation of the rule, some organizations providing public assistance to immigrants have reported a “chilling effect,” where some recipients have disenrolled from assistance programs for fear that it could hurt their immigration status, said Madison Hardee, a senior policy analyst for CLASP.

“Many immigrant parents are choosing not to enroll their children,” in spite of the fact that the DHS said it will not consider benefits received by U.S. citizen children in its public charge assessments, Hardee added.

An analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit health policy organization, predicted the rule change would lead to fewer legal resident immigrants and citizen children of immigrants participating in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program , with an estimated 875,000 to 2 million children possibly dropping insurance coverage despite the fact that the change in the rule would not directly impact them.

The text of the proposed rule acknowledges that it could lead to worse health outcomes, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, infants and children, an increase of emergency room use, an increase in uncompensated health care services, an increase in the prevalence of communicable diseases, rates of poverty and housing instability and reduced productivity and educational attainment.

“Not investing in health care when you need it; not getting adequate food when you need it, has detrimental effects on society at large,” said Bobo, the Virginia Interfaith Center director.

In the Richmond region, Avula is concerned about the impact that the fear of accepting nutrition and health care support from the government could have on public health, not only for immigrants and their families, but on the community at large.

The DHS is required by law to consider and respond to every public comment and is likely to face challenges in the court system, so it could be several months before the proposed rule goes into effect, Hardee said.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring plans to join a coalition of attorneys general across the nation who oppose the rule change.

(804) 649-6601

Twitter: @bridgetbalch

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