WESLACO, RGV – A community leader in the Rio Grande Valley says immigrant parents in the region have become scared to apply for health and nutrition benefits their U.S. citizen children are entitled to receive.

Graciela Camarena, program director for the Children’s Defense Fund-RGV, says the fear set in when immigrant families learned that the Trump Administration plans to change the rules related to the public charge.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, Camarena explained what public charge is and why immigrant parents are scared. 

“Public charge is a term that has been used for decades. It is part of immigration law,” Camarena explained. “The term used to only affect a few immigrants that utilized certain benefits. Those benefits were longterm care and cash help, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). Those were the only two programs or benefits that immigrant families would stay away from, where the immigration lawyer would say, do not apply for those programs, they will affect your chances of getting legal resident status.”

Graciela Camarena, program director for the Children’s Defense Fund-RGV.

Things are changing, though.

“Now, with the new administration, that policy is set to change. Public charge would impact U.S. citizen children with undocumented immigrant parents if those children utilize benefits like CHIP or Children’s Medicaid, WIC, SNAP, even housing or tax credits. If they use those programs, the children who qualify for them, the immigrant parents who are applying for legal permanent residency could be possibly be affected.”

Asked what impact the proposed change would have, Camarena said: “It would put families in a difficult position. Do the parents continue to become a permanent resident or do they feed their children, do they provide healthcare, which their children deserve and qualify for.”

Protecting Immigrant Families

Camarena provided the Rio Grande Guardian and 88 FM with a flyer about changes to the “public charge” by the Protecting Immigrant Families group. Here is the group’s analysis:

One of the most urgent threats is the Administration’s intent to redefine “public charge,’ so that only those with substantial incomes or resources would qualify for entry or adjustment status. Current law authorizes a bar to entry or permanent legal status is an immigrant is likely to become dependent on cash “welfare” or long-term institutional care at government expense. But current policy totes not consider an immigrant’s likely eligibility for non-cash supports that help so many working families climb the economic ladder. A draft order leaked in January 2017 was the first signal of this threat to low-income families. While the draft order was never released, it led to many immigrants choosing not to enroll themselves or their children in critical programs despite their being eligible.

In January 2018, the State Department revised its instructions to consular officials on public charge, adding the use of any public benefit by the person seeking a visa to enter the country, their family  embers, or their sponsor to the public charge consideration. This change is already impacting immigrants seeking to reunite with their immediate family members in the U.S. At the end of  March 2018, news outlets reported on a leaked draft of a “public charge” notice of proposed rule making. A few days later, the rule went to the Office of Management and Budget for review. The proposal would broadly expand the types of benefits to be considered unto the public charge determination, explicitly including Medicaid, ACA (Affordable /Care Act) subsidies, nutrition assistance, hoping assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and many other programs. The leaked run also indicates the Administration’s intent to consider the use of public benefits by the applicant’s family, including U.S. citizen children. If finalized, this proposal could force immigrant families to forgo needed health care or go hungry in order to obtain secure immigration status for themselves or their families.

Camarena urged immigrant families in the Valley to keep applying for the benefits their children are entitled to.

“It does not benefit any of our families to stop continuing to receive benefits right now.  We know the fear that has already set in, in our communities. Families are telling us, I do not want to renew my Medicaid, please close my food stamp case. Right now that fear is setting in and stopping these families from getting the benefits they need and deserve.”

Camarena said she is urging immigrant families to continue applying for benefits their children deserve and qualify for because the proposed rule change to the public charge has not yet been made. 

“It has not been passed. There will be time for public comment if and when it moves forward. Hopefully, we get this information out to the community so they do not lose out on these benefits that they qualify for, and that they need. It is important to educate the community that nothing has changed at this point. If they need these benefits right now and they qualify for them, they should continue to receive them.”

Camarena said CDF is working closely with the Center for Public Policy Priorities and other community groups throughout Texas to educate the public. She acknowledged that a change in the public charge could occur at any time.

“It could happen tomorrow, it could happen next month, or next year. Once it does, it has to go through the public comment phase. We need to make sure we are ready, that we raise our voices and make enough noise to push that back as much as possible. Hopefully, indefinitely.”

Asked how many Valley families would be affected if the public charge is changed, Camarena said: “We do not know exactly because so many families live in the shadows. If the parents are undocumented but they have U.S. citizen children they do not bring attention to themselves. The majority of families that we assist, at least 50 percent are undocumented parents with U.S. citizen children.”

Camarena said she knows there is fear in the community because it came up in a discussion with residents at an RGV Equal Voice event in Alamo on Thursday.

“The fear is already out there. We are hearing this from the families we serve, asking us ‘do I close my case, what do I need to do?’ They say, ‘My son will turn 21 in five years, will I have that opportunity to petition for my legal residency?’ They are scared,” Camarena said.

“And we heard it at the forum, we heard it from the community. They were speaking up, saying, I have heard this in the community. The fear is real. It is shared word of mouth. It is something that is important to our communities. It spreads like wildfire.”

Asked for any wrap-up remarks, Camarena said: “This proposed change to the public charge will affect children that are innocent. They are U.S. citizen children, many of them already in high school, getting ready to register to vote, getting ready to go into college. Getting ready for their future. It would be so sad if their parents, who have worked so hard to get them to this point, were not be able to get the benefits for the children.”

Asked what she would say to the federal government if their position was, ‘parents, keep applying for the benefits your children qualify for, we simply want to put up a road block so you do not apply for legal residency,’ Camarena said:

“That is, for me personally, just very sickening. How can you continue to separate families? We are not talking about drug traffickers and gangs. We are talking about hard working families that are here, that are working the best that they can, that are trying to go through this path to gain their legal residency. Why put more barriers up? There is already such a long waiting list for those who are applying through the regular application process. This is just another barrier.”