Nevada could bear the financial brunt of a new federal rule that is causing some immigrants to stop getting public assistance for their families, said Attorney General Aaron Ford.
Under the Trump Administration’s new guidelines for the public charge rule, which are already causing confusion ahead of its expected Oct. 15 implementation, the U.S. could deny resident status for immigrants who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing subsidies, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income.
“Without these safety nets, the ultimate result is there will be a shift in costs to the state and private organizations,” Ford said during a roundtable Sept. 26.
On Sept. 6, Ford joined attorneys general from around the country in filing a preliminary injunction to stop the federal government from implementing the rule while a lawsuit by their states moves forward.
The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of 14 states including Nevada, says that state and local governments would lose federal funding “because of the chilling effect of the Rule on otherwise-eligible individuals.” It also notes that “Because the Rule will reduce the number of insured residents and increase the amount of individuals who rely on emergency treatment for their primary source of medical care, uncompensated care in the Plaintiff States will rise. This increase will result in higher medical bills and health care costs charged by hospitals, undermining the Plaintiff States’ efforts to reduce their uninsured populations and harming their economies.”
Speaking with groups that work within the immigrant community including Mi Familia Vota, Make the Road Nevada, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the Culinary Union, Ford said fighting the rule change is two part.
“We have focused the lawsuit on two specific issues,” Ford said. “One is that the changes are inconsistent with the initial purpose of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. But even more specifically that the changes they are attempting to make right now are inconsistent, or illegal, because they did not properly follow the Administrative Procedures Act.”
The act governs the process the government takes in order to change or establish regulations.
But even the prospect of the rule change, along with the misconceptions surrounding it, is causing harm within the immigrant community.
“Many people are worried they will be deported if they use public benefits because the government may think they are a public charge,” said Cecia Alvarado, the Nevada State Director of Mi Familia Vota.
Confusion and fear
During the meeting, people spoke of immigrants — most of whom the rule doesn’t even apply to — who are so fearful they are opting out of needed assistance. One said a client, a visa holder who came to the country as part of the Violence Against Women Act, is refusing needed emergency surgery because she fears it might affect getting a Green Card.
Ford said the confusion created by the rule change is intentional. “You better believe that was the whole point,” he said.
Martha Menendes, an attorney at the UNLV Immigration Clinic, said that public charge applies to those applying for permanent resident status or trying to enter the country. “It only affects two groups,” she said. “People who are seeking to stay in the country because they have a family member who is petitioning them or people who are trying to enter the country through any type of visa.”
It doesn’t apply to naturalization applicants, recipients of Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, victim-based visa holders or people who are seeking or have been granted political asylum.
The current law only focuses on cash aid to supplement income or long-term medical aid. The new interpretation expands to include additional types of public assistance received for more than 12 months in any 36-month period.
‘Severe interpretation’ of the law
“What’s happening now is it’s just a much more severe interpretation of that law,” Menendes said. “It makes anyone who is likely to become dependent on public benefits inadmissible.”
The rule change also looks at an immigrants’ sponsor. Previously, their income had to be 125 percent higher than the federal poverty level. The new rule increases that to 250 percent.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers can also negatively weigh factors such as whether immigrants have previously used fee waivers during any part of the application process and their English proficiency, Menendes added.
She said that is especially problematic because it’s up to officers’ discretion how much they weigh each component.
“This process is very racialized,” added Sylvia Lazos with the Nevada Immigrant Coalition. Someone can speak perfect English but with an accent and that could cause an officer to mark the person as not proficient in English, she said. “So these criteria are highly concerning.”
Some in the meeting pointed out that many people don’t remember if they’ve used fee waivers on other immigration applications. Menendes said the only way to know is through a complicated and long Freedom of Information Act request.
Even before details emerged over the summer, the notion of changing the public charge rule had a negative impact on Nevada.
Child insurance rates increased last year after having decreased in previous years. Even though the rule change doesn’t affect the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid for people under 21, the Children’s Advocacy Alliance previously told Nevada Current that “there is a fear that this (rule change) would affect their status so many (immigrants) are disenrolling in Medicaid even for children.”