The Trump administration followed up on its brutal separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the U. S. border by proposing a new regulation that could lead to the separation of even lawfully present immigrants from their citizen children. As researchers focused on creating opportunities for children to succeed, and as passionate Americans, we are appalled. And like so many across the country, we are ready to speak out and fight back.
The administration’s new attack takes the form of a proposed U.S. Department of Homeland Security regulation that targets millions of families. It would label legal immigrants accessing essential health care and nutrition programs as “public charges,” which can lead to visa or green card denials. The proposal is incredibly broad. Until now, public charge determinations have hinged on cash assistance programs and long-term nursing care facilities under Medicaid. The proposed regulation expands the designation of “public charge” to include beneficiaries of most Medicaid-covered care, prescription medicines for the elderly under Medicare, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also called SNAP or food stamps), and housing assistance. These fundamental supports are core elements of our social contract to meet the basic health care, food, and nutrition of our fellow Americans.
More than 26 million people, including 9 million U.S.-born children, live in a household that receives public benefits and includes at least one noncitizen immigrant. Most of these families work hard every day for wages too low to fully meet their family’s needs without public benefits. These government services are essential supports for children’s development and economic security. Under the new regulation, however, noncitizen parents would be putting their immigration status and family’s unity at risk by relying on these necessary services that would leave them labelled a “public charge.”
The implications are far-reaching for the next generation of Americans."
While U.S.-born children’s continued use of benefits are not subject to these public charge considerations, we know from research that there are severe chilling effects on program participation borne of fear and confusion. The Clinton-era Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, a 1996 welfare-reform law that included less far-sweeping restrictions, reduced the program participation of children in immigrant families who were not directly affected by the legislative changes.
The current immigration-enforcement policy climate, heated anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the long-anticipated threat of rules changes around “public charge” may have already scared eligible immigrant families from program supports and services for which there is tremendous need and benefit for children. The total number of families using SNAP has dropped by 9 percent since the start of 2017. With the panic that surrounds the public charge rule, we can expect steeper drops even before such a rule takes effect.
What benefits to children would be lost and harm generated by the proposed rule? The implications are far-reaching for the next generation of Americans.
Basic child health outcomes would be placed at risk. Significant expansions beginning in the 1990s in public health-care coverage for children from Medicaid eligibility increases have resulted in reduced child mortality. With the inclusion of Medicaid benefits in the proposed rule, enrollment would decline and child mortality increase. Parents’ and children’s health are inextricably linked. When conditions like maternal depression go undiagnosed and untreated, young children experience negative effects on their own health and development.
Second, parents and children eat from the same table, and the research on food insecurity and food assistance is clear. One 2011 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found that the SNAP program reduces children’s food insecurity by 20 to 30 percent. SNAP alone keeps nearly 5 million children out of poverty each year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Research further demonstrates that children in food-insecure households face higher risks of health and development problems. And research by Hilary Hoynes and colleagues shows that SNAP benefits in early childhood led to positive adult health outcomes, higher earnings, and even lower likelihood of relying on SNAP as an adult. So denying millions of children this important resource would result in short-term increases in hunger and health problems, as well as long-term economic damage.
In short, by denying millions the services they need to support their families, this proposal would result in a hungrier, sicker, and poorer future for Americans. In 2016, children of immigrants comprised 18 million of the 70 million children in the United States, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Like all children, they need protection from poverty and illness, and to know their families do not face restrictions in food, health care, and the other supports that all children need to become productive and proud Americans.
We, as researchers and as compassionate people, know better. There is no good reason to take away food, shelter, or access to health care, and put millions of families at risk. Not only does this regulation contradict the evidence, it also contradicts our values and tarnishes us as a nation. The United States has benefited from the contributions of immigrants and their progeny, who have been nurtured by this country’s openness and abundance, as well as its ability to make use of the talents newcomers contribute.
As children of immigrants ourselves, we cite not only rigorous evidence but our own lives. Our parents arrived here in the 1950s and 1960s, leaving behind home countries, families, and everything they knew to provide a better future for their children. We, as well as all of our siblings, have made the most of what the United States has to offer. And we have grown up to be professionals focused on improving the opportunities and life chances of children. Isn’t that what America stands for? We believe deeply it is and always will be.
Just as we cannot break the bonds of migrant family ties coming to our border, we cannot treat the resources and needs of hardworking immigrant parents and their children as anything other than one and the same. We must unite to reject this attack on immigrants as an incursion on our defining values and our shared future.