The chill has descended.
Last week marked the start of a new rule imposed by the Trump administration that will deny permanent legal status — green cards — to immigrants who appear likely to need public benefits such as Medicaid, housing vouchers, or food stamps.
But the rule, known as the public charge, is having a secondary chilling effect, according to academics and anti-hunger advocates: It’s sowing confusion among immigrants already living here who are legally entitled to benefits but are nonetheless giving up their food stamps for fear of being targeted and kicked out of the country.
As a consequence, those experts say, the number of people suffering from hunger in America could increase at alarming rates.
“It’s really cruel,” said Joan Maya Mazelis, a sociologist at Rutgers University-Camden. "Immigrants are afraid and are misunderstanding a complex situation.
“But they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, and so they lose food stamps, which make a huge difference to their health. It’s depressing.”
Worries about the public charge rule began percolating in 2017, when the Trump administration first proposed expanding it.
For more than a century, foreigners seeking to live in the United States have had to prove they will not become a public charge — a poor person dependent on government largesse.
But the Trump administration has added to the conditions to the public charge test, and for the first time is counting food stamps as a program whose usage will be seen as a mark against immigrants.
Defending the policy, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has said the new rule will promote “longstanding ideals,” such as accepting immigrants who “exhibit self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance.”
David Inserra, policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told a foundation news outlet that the rule change was long overdue. It will protect U.S. taxpayers, he said, “by ensuring that new immigrants to the U.S. will not add even more spending on top of welfare and entitlement programs that are already unsustainably driving American debt higher.”
Lots are frightened
It’s not clear how many people are affected by the public charge chill, said Steven Larin, deputy director of Nationalities Service Center, a Center City nonprofit that provides help to immigrants for legal, education, and social-service issues.
“But,” he added, “lots of folks are being frightened away from their benefits. We had to start a food pantry here when we realized that clients were stopping their benefits."
When people apply to become Americans, the new rule will allow screeners to consider income and resources, education, age, family status, and numerous other factors.
Critics say the Trump administration’s ultimate aim is to deny admission to citizens of countries plagued by poverty.
The rule has been challenged in nine lawsuits, including one joined by the state of Pennsylvania, according to Maripat Pileggi, supervising attorney in the public benefits unit of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the charge could go into effect while the lawsuits continue. Meanwhile, misconceptions and panic reign.
“I’ve had hundreds of conversations with nervous immigrants across the state,” Pileggi said.
Ironically, she said, “there really are very, very few people" already living here who are subject to the public charge.
It’s hard for immigrants to qualify for food stamps — now called SNAP benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — in the first place, she added.
By the time they can access SNAP, many immigrants must already be lawful permanent residents who’ve lived here for five years, U.S. rules stipulate.
“The public seem to think the door to public benefits is wide open for all immigrants, but that’s not the case at all,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “There are already very strict requirements for those who receive benefits.”
Fisher said her agency’s hotline operators explain to qualified, legal immigrants that they need not give up SNAP benefits because the public charge doesn’t affect them.
“But some are still scared,” she said.
In many cases, legal immigrants have children born in the United States, who are automatically U.S. citizens eligible for SNAP.
But more and more parents won’t apply for their kids’ benefits, deterred by the public charge, according to Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a cruel, counterproductive, and, yes, un-American policy,” said Joel Berg, CEO of the New York-based nonprofit Hunger Free America.
Glenn Bergman, executive director of Philabundance, the region’s leading hunger-fighting agency, said that by convincing immigrants they should eschew SNAP benefits, the public charge will drive them to food pantries. “This puts additional strain on emergency food providers,” he said. “Philabundance cannot fill the gap when ... [SNAP] programs are cut or underutilized.”
Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey in Englewood, Bergen County, said that the public charge fulfills two needs for the Trump administration: It will reduce the numbers of arriving immigrants, and it will compel those already here to abandon benefits to which they’re entitled.
“People will stop accessing SNAP," she said. "But they won’t stop being in need.”