Worried immigrants attend town hall for information about the “public charge” rule

Elected officials and immigration advocates met with anxious immigrants in a Staten Island town hall event aimed at easing concerns about the “public charge” rule proposed by the federal government. Worried that changes to the rule could affect their immigration status, many immigrants have been giving up their public benefits.

Carlos Menchaca, City Council member and chair of the committee on immigration at the Staten Island town hall on Friday Nov. 2. (The Ink/Ero Partsakoulaki)

“Everyone is really confused and afraid right now,” Carlos Menchaca, a City Council member and chair of the committee on immigration said in an interview at the event, held at a religious center, Edificadores De Naciones, on Staten Island. “There is a group of people who does not even know what’s going on and others that have bad information. Many immigrants are confused by what they hear from the news and private lawyers, many of which tell them to disenroll from health programs.”

The confusion began in September when the Trump Administration announced it would make changes to the public charge rule that is used to determine whether an immigrant will be admitted to the United States or allowed to remain once here. In determining inadmissibility, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services define public charge as an individual who is likely to become “primarily dependent on public benefits,” such as cash assistance or long-term institutionalization, at government expense.

The government is now planning to extend the list of public programs it considers when examining the likelihood that applicants for green cards and certain visas will become dependent on public benefits. The results of a preliminary analysis conducted by New York City, found that as many as 475,000 New Yorkers and their families might withdraw or forgo assistance through social safety net programs leading to significant effects in public health.

Esperanza Santiago, a nutritional assistant at the Richmond University Medical Center on Staten Island said that her team has been losing people at the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program since the rule change was announced in September.  WIC provides nutrition education to pregnant women and mothers of children up to five years old and has already seen significant enrollment decrease since President Donald Trump’s election, as reported by Documented, a non-profit news sited covering New York City’s immigrants and policies that affect them.

“I’ve been calling people to schedule their appointments and they tell me that they don’t want to come because they are afraid,” Santiago said in an interview at the event. “Their lawyer’s advice was to drop out of the program because it won’t be good for their paperwork. Since the announcement of the program, about a month ago, we’ve been losing three to four people each week despite trying to explain them that they are not affected by using this program.”

Meredith Fortin, the director of Immigrant Services Support at the New York Immigration Coalition, during her presentation on Friday in Staten Island. (The Ink/Ero Partsakoulaki)

In a presentation Friday, Meredith Fortin, the director of Immigrant Services Support at the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group, explained that the only benefit programs currently considered as part of the public charge test are cash assistance and institutionalized long-term care through Medicaid. She encouraged immigrant New Yorkers to continue using other programs that are not currently affected. These include WIC, children’s health insurance, the refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and couples with children, benefits used by eligible children in a family, and seeing a doctor at the hospital or clinics.

On October 10, the Department of Homeland Security published a notice outlining the new definition of public charge and opening up a two month period for public comments. Attendees at the town hall were encouraged to submit comments against the proposed rule.

“It is an important time to fight back and an opportunity to affect what the final rule is, as well as slow down the process by submitting a great number of comments” said Fortin, at the beginning of the presentation.

Because the comments have to be written in English, a challenging factor for many immigrants, volunteers assisted attendees.

Sharon Martinez Villa, 23, and her mother, Gloria, submitted a comment with the assistance of a New York Immigration Coalition volunteer. Martinez Villa, who was born in the U.S. and has citizenship, said she attended the event to stay informed and submit a comment. Her parents, immigrants from Mexico, do not have access to public benefits.

The City Council is planning to submit an official comment that is still in draft form, said Menchaca. “Our letter is stressing out the dramatic effects that this rule will have to public health and is stating that it is contrary to the values of our country, state and city.”

The public comment period will be open until Dec. 10, and so far about 40,000 comments have been submitted nationally.

Town halls are planned for all five boroughs. The next one will be held Nov. 13 in the Bronx at Our Lady of Mercy, at 6 p.m. The Brooklyn town hall will be held Nov. 15 at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, at 6.30 p.m., and a Queens event will be take place on Nov. 20 at P.S. 69 Elementary School at 6 p.m. The town hall in Manhattan has not yet been announced.