Originally published by The Washington Post
Once again, the Trump administration is looking to punish immigrants. And once again, innocent children are getting hurt in the process.
This time, however, many of those innocent children are likely to be U.S. citizens.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the Trump administration is readying a new rule that should make your blood boil. The initiative, in the works for more than a year, would make it harder for legal immigrants to receive either green cards or citizenship if they — or anyone in their households — has ever benefited from a long list of safety-net programs. These include the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), food stamps or even health insurance purchased on the Obamacare exchanges.
Three points are worth emphasizing here.
First is that, again, this policy would apply to immigrants who are in the country legally . It’s not about punishing people for “sneaking across the border,” that apparently unforgivable transgression that Trump officials have previously used to justify state-sanctioned child abuse. And, in any case, undocumented immigrants are already excluded from nearly all federal anti-poverty programs.
As such, the proposal fits into President Trump’s agenda to dramatically cut levels of legal immigration, despite his rhetorical focus on the undocumented.
Second, this rule is ostensibly about making sure immigrants are self-sufficient and not a drain on public coffers. But NBC reports that the rule could disqualify immigrants making as much as 250 percent of the poverty level.
Moreover, an immigrant’s past use of benefits does not necessarily mean he or she will need them forever. Even the immigrant populations that you might expect to have the most trouble achieving economic self-sufficiency have proved to be a good long-term investment for the nation’s fiscal health.
For instance, refugees initially cost the government money; they need a lot of help, after all, given that they often arrive penniless and without proficient English-language skills. But over time, their work and wage prospects improve and, by their fifth year here, they pay more in taxes than they received in benefits on average, according to a government report commissioned and subsequently suppressed by the Trump administration last year. (The report eventually leaked to the New York Times.)
Third, and most important, is that under the proposal, it’s not only immigrants who must forgo safety-net benefits if they don’t wish to be penalized by the immigration system. It is everyone in a given immigrant’s household.
That includes — based on an earlier leaked draft of the proposal published by The Post — an immigrant’s own children, even if those children are U.S. citizens who independently qualify for safety-net benefits.
That’s right. Legal-immigrant moms and dads may soon face a choice between (A) guaranteeing their U.S.-born children medical care, preschool classes and infant formula today, or (B) not threatening their own ability to qualify for green cards or citizenship tomorrow.
The universe of U.S.-citizen children who could be affected is large. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that, in Medicaid and CHIP enrollment alone in 2016, about 5.8 million citizen children had a noncitizen parent.
The rule has not yet been issued. But various versions of it have leaked over the past year and a half. These have received coverage in foreign-language media, and fears about changes to immigration policy already appear to be discouraging participation in services meant to help low-income American children.
Including, perhaps most distressingly, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a critical lifeline that provides access to food, prenatal care, breast pumps and other services for low-income mothers and children. WIC was listed in the draft rule published by The Post, and it’s not clear whether it remains in the latest version; but, either way, some immigrant parents and parents-to-be are already unenrolling, just in case.
“I had one family come and tell me, ‘Please remove us from WIC program, all services, medical, dental, everything,’ ” says Aliya S. Haq, the nutrition services supervisor at International Community Health Services in Seattle. The family had a child less than a year old who needed medical attention, but Haq could not convince them the benefits outweighed the risks of staying in the program.
Another patient, who is pregnant, asked to stop receiving prenatal assistance because she’s applying for citizenship.
Haq said the clinic’s WIC enrollment has fallen by about 10 percent over the past year; she worries daily about whether infant and maternal mortality rates will worsen, and whether there will be a negative effect on the brain development and long-term health of newborns.
Any policy that discourages, even a little bit, poor families’ use of such services is not just heartless. From an economic perspective, it is foolish. We need healthy, well-nourished, well-educated children to become healthy, well-nourished, productive workers.
But once again, children and the economic future they represent are the casualties of Trump’s casual cruelty.