One-Fourth of Low-Income Immigrant Households Avoided Public Benefits in 2020

In this Aug. 13, 2019, photo, Jasmine Saavedra, a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Centers in Chicago, talks to patients in her clinic. Doctors and public health experts warn of poor health outcomes and rising costs they say will come from sweeping changes that would deny green cards to many immigrants who use Medicaid, as well as food stamps and other forms of public assistance.

In this Aug. 13, 2019, photo, Jasmine Saavedra, a pediatrician at Esperanza Health Centers in Chicago, talks to patients in her clinic. Doctors and public health experts warn of poor health outcomes and rising costs they say will come from sweeping changes that would deny green cards to many immigrants who use Medicaid, as well as food stamps and other forms of public assistance. AP Photo/Amr Alfiky

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Despite financial hardships brought on by the pandemic, some households did not seek benefits because of concerns due in part to the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule.

More than a quarter of low-income immigrant households had a family member avoid public benefits last year due to concerns over immigration status—even as the coronavirus pandemic created considerable economic hardships, according to a new survey by the Urban Institute.

Fifty-two percent of low-income immigrant households surveyed said the pandemic negatively affected a member of the household’s employment, making the reluctance of eligible family members to participate in public benefits programs all the more striking, researchers said.

The percentage of adults in low-income immigrant families who reported that either they or a family member avoided noncash benefits or other help due to immigration concerns increased slightly between 2019 to 2020, from 26.2% to 27.5%.

“There was greater need, so there was a possibility that families might overlook some of their fears out of dire need. But at the same time, you had a lot of fear and insecurity around the immigration issues,” said Hamutal Bernstein, a principal research associate with the Urban Institute. “What we found was that the chilling effect remained persistent.”

While researchers acknowledge that some immigrant households with members who are eligible for assistance programs, such as U.S.-born children, may not participate due to concerns about interacting with government agencies, they said the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule heightened the chilling effects.

The rule, which was proposed in 2019 and took effect in February 2020, allowed U.S. immigration officials to more strictly scrutinize prospective immigrants’ wealth and reliance on public benefits when they sought green cards or visas. Things like an individual’s use or potential use of benefits programs like Medicaid, housing assistance or food stamps could all be weighed as factors against an applicant.  

President Biden repealed the rule in March, but Bernstein said it will likely take time before immigrant communities understand the changes and trust can be re-established.

State and local governments can play a role in improving communication and outreach to make sure immigrant communities know the rule has been reversed, the Urban report notes.

“Chilling effects will likely persist unless government agencies and their community partners clearly communicate the policy change and help immigrant families access benefits,” the report states. “Federal, state, and local agencies can develop communications strategies to build trust and reassure immigrant families that accessing critical basic supports or seeking medical care will not affect their or their family members’ immigration statuses.”

Messaging straight from state and local governments can be useful, but Bernstein said that governments should aim to engage with immigrant communities through trusted organizations that are engaged in community work.

Other ways to encourage immigrants to access programs they are entitled to utilize could include reducing the amount of information requested for program applications, avoiding requests for Social Security numbers, improving the quality of translated materials, and training program workers on the complex eligibility rules.

The type of financial distress reported by low-income immigrant families in 2020 included:

  • 41% who reported food insecurity.
  • 27%  who reported difficulty paying medical bills.
  • 22% who reported difficulty paying rent or a mortgage.

Low income was defined as having an income below 200% of the federal poverty level. 

Undocumented immigrants and temporary visa holders are not eligible for programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, though they can receive some assistance through public health programs, disaster relief, charitable food or school meal programs. But the report found that some adults in immigrant families reported avoiding all manner of benefits programs, even those they would be eligible for including unemployment insurance, free of low-cost medical care through a local health care program, emergency rental assistance, and cash or food assistance from local governments.

“These chilling effects also extended to people who would not be directly affected by a public charge test, including naturalized and US-born citizens and green card holders,” the Urban Institute report states.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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