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Trump Push to Steer Immigrants Away From Federal Benefits Worries Schools

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 05, 2018 4 min read
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School district leaders are sounding the alarm that a Trump administration proposal about the impact of immigrants’ use of federal benefit programs on their attempts to become permanent residents would place an unfair and significant burden on public education.

Here’s some background: The issue involves what’s known as “public charge,” which Washington uses to determine if an immigrant seeking to become a permanent U.S. resident is likely to become “primarily dependent” on the federal government for subsistence. In the past, if immigrants were deemed likely to access programs like Temporary Asisstance for Needy Families and Supplemental Social Security, it could undermine their attempts at permanent residency. However, the Trump administration wants to expand the scope of public charge. Under its proposal, programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps), Medicaid, Medicare Part D, and some housing programs would also be added to the list.

The Trump administration says its plan would ensure that more immigrants seeking to become permanent residents wouldn’t burden the federal government’s welfare programs. “Those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a statement earlier this year.

The department is also seeking comment on whether it should add the Children’s Health Insurance Program (known as CHIP) to the list of programs that would fall under the new rules for public charge.

Last month, the Migration Policy Institute, which opposes Trump’s proposed rule, estimated that 69 percent of individuals who received permanent legal status from 2012 to 2016 would have had one new negative factor counted against them in their applications for green cards under the proposed change to public charge.

We wrote about the issue in October. The Trump administration’s proposal includes a carve-out so that those who access school-based Medicaid services wouldn’t have it count against them under the revised rules for “public charge.” (Medicaid is the third-largest source of federal funds for schools.) And it’s important to remember that simply accessing public benefits wouldn’t automatically bar immigrants from becoming permanent residents. The rule also wouldn’t apply to undocumented immigrants, who are already ineligible for most forms of public assistance.

But a group representing school officials is strongly opposed to the idea. AASA, the School Superintendents Association, says that even with an exception made for school-based Medicaid services, the plan would ultimately create a chilling effect in the immigrant community, leading fewer immigrants and by extension their children to rely on benefits programs in general. Among other things, the group says the plan would make it less likely for the school-age children of these immigrants to enroll in CHIP regardless of whether CHIP is ultimately included in the new DHS public charge rule.

Without the support of programs like CHIP, these children would increasingly rely on schools to provide services they might have otherwise received from benefits programs, AASA argues. And children that go without services provided by federal benefit programs could ultimate experience developmental and learning delays.

“Ultimately, this could lead to less successful educational outcomes for children if schools or Medicaid cannot address the health-care impediments to learning,” Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director, said in the group’s comment submitted to the Department of Homeland Security.

Nancy Wagner, the superintendent of the River Trails district in Illinois, about 25 miles outside of Chicago, said if more of her children lose their access to food stamps as a result of the Trump administration’s plan, the disrict can’t make up the difference. The district’s summer food programs for children, she noted as an example, don’t even run all summer. Wagner said she wasn’t sure how many children in her district had parents who could be impacted by the proposal.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that if the public charge rule goes into effect, Medicaid and CHIP could lose anywhere from 2.1 million to 4.9 million people who are enrolled across the two programs, AASA notes.

She compared the chilling effect the proposal would have to raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement a few years ago that, she said, led fewer families in her district to apply for free and reduced-price meals. (Wagner says the district now uses community eligibility, taking the burden off individual families to apply for those meal benefits.)

“We don’t have a community partnership where we can provide kids with a higher level of health care,” Wagner said. “The pressure it would put on us to provide additional care during school time ... there’s no way we could afford that. It’s not like there’s additional funding coming our way.”

The window for the public to comment on the proposal closes Dec. 10.

Photo: President Donald Trump in 2017 (Andrew Harnik/AP)

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