HOUSTON – Cars began to slip into the parking lot shortly after 6 a.m., meandering around police officers directing traffic towards masked volunteers standing by with boxes of frozen pizza, tortillas and brown bags of canned goods.
The coronavirus pandemic has pushed many of the hundreds of families into the pantry behind the wheel, but among the many immigrant families online, another cause was at work: President Trump’s recently expanded regulations that block the access to green cards for legal immigrants who are deemed likely to accept any government assistance. Even with child citizens who are clearly eligible for federal assistance, undocumented immigrant parents are avoiding programs like food stamps and flocking to pantries.
This, in turn, puts a strain on relief agencies and poses a challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who may face growing hunger by expanding government programs but will not be able to. quickly cancel the expansion of a Clinton by the Trump administration. regulations that keep immigrant families away from these programs.
“They stop registering their kids and asking for food,” said Cathy Moore, executive director of Epiphany Community Health Outreach Services, which runs the drive-through pantry in Houston. “They are afraid.”
Dani, a 34-year-old undocumented Honduran immigrant and mother of three daughters, said she was alarmed at the start of the Trump administration when the president described immigrants as criminals and called for deportation raids . But she changed her behavior and filed for food stamps and Medicaid in 2018 when the administration announced its so-called public charge rule, expanding the power of officials to deny green cards to immigrants who might need a public aid.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled against the Trump administration when it upheld preliminary injunctions against the public charge rule, ruling the settlement was likely not a reasonable interpretation of the law federal immigration law. But even though the policy continues to be challenged, it has already sowed fear and confusion in immigrant communities.
The Clinton administration has ordered officials to treat immigrants as a “public charge” under limited circumstances, such as receiving cash benefits from the government. But the Trump administration has effectively created a wealth test for immigrants seeking permanent residence by making inadmissible applicants deemed likely to use a wide range of safety net programs.
Some undocumented immigrants who have resided in the country for many years fear that the use of public benefits for their families will jeopardize their chances of obtaining permanent residence if a new Congress grants them an amnesty. If they are denied a green card, they believe they would then become vulnerable to deportation.
Unauthorized immigrants are already ineligible for most welfare programs, but several researchers have said the policy has prompted thousands of families to relinquish benefit roles, even though their U.S. citizen children could use such programs without. effect on their immigration applications – families like Dani.
“I remember all of this about public office and everything, and I can’t sleep,” said Dani, who was particularly concerned about her efforts to get a green card so she could stay with her children. . “What will happen if I am kicked out?” What happens if i am fired? “
While some of Mr. Trump’s executive actions may be quickly reversed by the new Biden administration, public office regulation, which went through the painstaking regulatory process before being enacted, will prove difficult to reverse if ultimately. confirmed by the courts. And reducing the mistrust of the government it has sparked will be a major challenge for Mr. Biden’s choice as head of the Homeland Security Department, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the first Latino and immigrant chosen for this role. .
The ministry, which deals with immigration matters such as the issuance of green cards, has jurisdiction over public charge rule.
“The fear has become such that it will be a real challenge to allay the fears of families. They focus on public office, but not just public office, ”said Cheasty Anderson, director of immigration policy and advocacy at Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “There will be no trust in the federal government among immigrant communities who are currently afraid and intimidated until they stop feeling attacked by the federal government machinery.
TJ Ducklo, a spokesperson for Mr Biden, reiterated that the president-elect will work to roll back public charge rule and pledged to “engage with communities from day one to ensure that ‘they are able to access the care available to ensure the safety and health of their families. “
A survey of 949 members of immigrant households conducted by the Urban Institute found that more than 20% of adult immigrants avoided public benefits like food stamps, housing subsidies, Medicaid or the children’s health insurance program. fear of risking future green cards in 2019. Researchers for Ideas42, a nonprofit research organization, estimated that 260,000 children nationwide were removed by their parents from nutrition and health care programs after the announcement of the rule.
This estimate was based on a study which found that 79,000 children withdrew from Medicaid in five states: California, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.
The Trump administration has said the rule is necessary to ensure that immigrants coming to the United States are self-sufficient and do not strain taxpayer resources. After announcing the policy, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a senior homeland security official, revised the iconic Statue of Liberty sonnet by declaring that the United States would welcome those “who can stand on their own feet.”
The administration had also predicted the cooling effect. In the final rule, Kevin K. McAleenan, the then acting secretary of homeland security, wrote that the policy could bring foreigners and US citizens into households with unauthorized immigrants “who might otherwise be eligible. to public benefits ”to abandon the programs. The agency estimated that this could save the federal nearly $ 2.5 billion a year.
The effects have been acute among immigrant families in Texas, according to a report released in November by the Children’s Defense Fund, which compiled data from 32 social service organizations in the border state. Ms. Moore’s organization reported a 37% drop in stamp registrations from 2016 to 2019 among a clientele made up of more than 80% immigrant families, even though demand on the food distribution site of the organization grew 327%.
Another organization, VELA, a nonprofit that helps families of children with disabilities whose workforce is 85% immigrant, reported an 80% drop in food stamp registrations from 2017 to 2019.
One of those who filed was Guillermina, a mother of three in Austin, Texas, who, like other parents interviewed for this article, declined to use her full name for fear of reprisal. After hearing about the public charge rule, Guillermina withdrew from food stamps in 2018 and let her health expire.
Everything but the essentials suddenly became a luxury.
“The biggest limitation for us was meat and protein. It was the most expensive thing, ”Guillermina said. “The most important thing was how to ration this item so that we could include it in small chunks throughout the week.”
Due to the lack of health insurance, she could no longer send her 4-year-old son to speech therapy. Without therapy sessions, Guillermina’s 11-year-old autistic daughter began to forget the techniques she had learned for household chores, which caused outbursts of anger.
“The problem with public office is that it’s something that hasn’t just affected me,” Guillermina said. “It affected everyone in my family, so many families I know fixing their papers – this fear of feeling like I could never access my benefits without risking deportation.”
In McAllen, Texas, Nailea Avalos, 32, a mother of three who has worked as a waitress for years, took a deep breath and started to cry at the mention of the public office rule. Originally from Mexico, she used public benefits to supplement her income as a waitress and her husband’s income from construction until 2016, when a friend told her that Mr. Trump could soon punish those who used the aid. .
She got used to rationing food.
But in 2018, her daughter Xiomara, 8 at the time, showed how badly she needed Medicaid. When an asthma attack prevented Xiomara from breathing for a week, Ms Avalos said she used a nebulizer that she still had from her son’s previous illness rather than taking her daughter to the hospital. hospital. When Xiomara’s struggles continued, she took her across the border to Reynosa, Mexico, for medical treatment.
“I felt like I was not a good mother, that I was not taking care of my child,” said Ms. Avalos.
When her husband lost his construction job during the pandemic, she was fired on public benefits. She was told that using government assistance for her citizen children would not affect her green card eligibility, but said she was still full of anxiety.
“We leave that to God, but we also hope that if we have a new administration and a new president, all of that will change,” Ms. Avalos said, adding that she hoped the Biden administration officials “will have just one. consciousness. “
Some of the parents using the pantry in Houston said they re-enrolled in public benefit programs only because they lost their jobs in the pandemic. But parents like Dani said they always felt more comfortable waiting for hours with their kids in the pantry queue.
“They should have the food stamps to which they are entitled because these people need to be able to put food on the table for their children who are citizens of the United States,” said Ms. Moore, Health Outreach Services. Epiphany community. “Collateral damage concerns children.”
As a case manager approached the driver’s side windows to speak to parents, the line of vehicles threatened to stretch beyond the parking lot. The police should tell more drivers to come back another time.
“It’s no longer shocking,” Ms. Moore said. “It’s just the norm.”