The Trump administration's new public charge rule, which makes it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards if it looks like they might need public assistance, is set to go into effect on Oct. 15. Multiple groups, including several states and immigrants' rights advocates, are in court trying to delay the rule and ultimately block it.
But there's already widespread confusion over how the rule would work, leading many immigrants to drop benefits unnecessarily. Advocacy groups are now trying to get the message out about what the rule actually requires so people don't go without needed medical, housing and nutrition assistance.
The administration says the rule is needed to ensure that those who get green cards will be self-sufficient. One factor that immigration officials will consider in deciding whether someone might become a public charge is whether the individual already uses public benefits.
Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, is among those challenging the new test. Member Monica Camacho Perez is a plaintiff in the case. The 25-year-old Baltimore resident was brought into the country illegally as a child and is now a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. Camacho is worried about how the public charge rule might affect her ability to someday become a citizen.
"You never know with this government. Everything can be used against you," she says.
But like many other people, Camacho is not exactly sure how that would work. For example, she'd like to go to college full time but is reluctant to take out a student loan for fear it will hurt her future immigration status. In fact, under the new rule, student loans aren't supposed to be held against someone applying for a green card.
Such misunderstandings are widespread. Camacho says she has relatives who have stopped getting food stamps for their children, who are U.S. citizens, even though use of such benefits by their children wouldn't count.
George Escobar, chief of programs and services at Casa, says about a third of the group's members have raised concerns about how using benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid might affect their legal status. Many want to drop out of these programs just to be safe. Escobar says he tries to dissuade families from doing so.
"The number of people that are actually being impacted by the public charge rule is actually very limited, but the chilling impact is what's much more concerning," he says.
There are some estimates that nationwide, millions of people aren't getting nutrition and health assistance because they're so worried. Many live in mixed-status families, which include citizens and noncitizens. In reality, so few noncitizens are eligible for the safety net programs covered by the rule that the number who would be affected is estimated to be in the low tens of thousands.
"What we're trying to do with our community right now, and what we've done, is provide culturally proficient education material, engage people, use every opportunity we can to engage people and educate them about what the public charge rule is and what it is not," Escobar says.
Casa is part of a national network of groups trying to get the information out. They've printed up brochures, conducted training for social service providers and set up multiple websites that provide details on how the rule will work. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has also provided detailed explanations of the changes.
But efforts to clear up the confusion have been complicated by uncertainty over the fate of the legal challenges and by the administration's multiple actions to limit both legal and illegal immigration. For example, the White House issued a new order on Oct. 4 that requires foreigners seeking visas to enter the U.S. to show they have health insurance or enough money to cover "reasonably foreseeable medical costs."
Sonya Schwartz, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, says there are a few key points for immigrants to remember.
"I think the first thing that's really helpful for people to know is that the public charge test does not apply to everyone," she says, noting that refugees, asylum-seekers and most current green card holders are exempt.
She adds that only benefits used by green card applicants themselves, not those used by family members, are taken into account. The list of benefits considered is also generally limited to food stamps, housing subsidies and cash assistance.
"Medicaid is also on the list, but there are so many exceptions about Medicaid that it doesn't affect a lot of people. So kids' use of Medicaid doesn't count. Use of Medicaid in schools doesn't count. Emergency Medicaid doesn't count," says Schwartz.
Use of school nutrition programs, child care assistance and Medicare are also not supposed to be held against a green card applicant.
Schwartz also points out that use of public benefits alone will not make someone a public charge. She says immigration officials weigh many things in determining whether an immigrant will be able to support themselves, including whether the immigrant earns enough money or can speak English. These are tighter standards than in the past and could mean that use of benefits is the least of an immigrant's worries.