Rule would make people hungrier, sicker, and poorer

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Commentary by: Jessica Thomasson

As we were wrapping up 2018 Welcoming Week celebrations across the country, I along with millions of Americans, was disheartened when the Administration released a draft rule from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that modifies current federal policy on access to public benefits for immigrants.

The modification to the existing “public charge” test basically means that the Administration wants to take away access to health care, housing and other assistance from low income immigrant families, including in some cases, U.S. citizen children.[1] What will this mean for immigrant families -- not refugees, who are not included in this rule, but other immigrants living in our country?

I bet I have been asked hundreds of times of the last few years, some version of the question: “Why should refugees get public assistance?” In other words, ”Why should it be our (i.e., “the public’s”) responsibility to support them?”

My reply, in regards to our direct experience working with refugees, has been some version of the following.

Refugees are, with few exceptions, working within 3-4 months of arriving in their new home community. They often are working to learn the language and acclimate themselves and their children to their new home, and they are working because they know that good stable employment is critical to their ability to provide for their family. Which is all they want to do.

I also note that, just because they are working doesn’t mean they won’t need help. At least for awhile.

The jobs refugees typically are hired to do when they come to the U.S. are entry-level jobs, which often means that they are lower paying. They are good jobs. Working for good employers. They are jobs our community needs to fill, but they are not, by their very nature, high paying jobs. And my experience tells me that many refugee families work not just one entry level job, but two or three. Doing whatever they can to make ends meet.

Their employment status puts them in a category of people in our community who you could call the working poor. People who are working but still struggling. This is one of the main reasons communities invest in the provision of public benefits. To help people who are struggling to make ends meet. To make their way.

So, I tell people, refugees are working. And yes, may receive public assistance of some form or other, just like anyone else who you could call “working poor”. It is not different because they are refugees. It is the same for them as for any other legal resident of the county.

Now, given the changes that would be promulgated by the proposed rule, let’s expand this conversation beyond refugees to include all immigrants. Are we really willing to say that you should lose access to public supports that are designed to help your family meet basic needs because you weren’t born here?

This new policy has some exclusions for kids to minimize the impact on them wherever possible. But what we know to be true is that hurting parents hurts kids. And hurting families hurts communities.

There are a lot of things that bind us together as Americans. An unwavering commitment to everyone’s opportunity to build a better life for themselves is one of them. I never understood that value to be subject to an exclusion clause that says – only if you and your parents were born here.

Of course there are people out there who take advantage of systems. This proposed rule is not about that. This is about fairness and equality under the law. It is about why we, as a community, show up in different times of people’s lives through public programs like TANF and SNAP (general and nutrition support), LIHEAP and CCA (energy and child care assistance), Medicaid and Medicare (medical assistance), Section 8 and USDA RD (housing assistance), etc.

The proposed rule is wrong. The American Dream is big enough for all of us. Our community’s – our country’s success – will take the work and wellbeing of all of us.

We should support families who are trying to build a better life. It’s who we are.

Official public comment to Department of Homeland Security from Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota on the proposed change to the "public charge" rule.

[1] You can read more about the proposed rule here: (health focus) or here: (link to USDHS website) or here: (advocate’s perspective).

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