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In this Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, Militza Pagan, an attorney with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, speaks during a press conference just days after the Trump Administration’s expanded public charge rule took effect in Illinois. On Wednesday, Pagan and others, who fought the expanded rule, celebrated the Biden Administration’s decision to drop its defense of the policy, effectively terminating it.

María Inés Zamudio

Immigration Advocates From Illinois Celebrate The End Of The Expanded Public Charge Rule

Raquel Lopez and her husband lost their jobs last year in the middle of the pandemic.

But even as she struggled to put food on the table, she refused to get food stamps for her 14-year-old daughter.

“I was afraid of losing my chances of fixing my status,” Lopez said in Spanish. “I want to fix my status someday. I didn’t want to hurt my chances.”

Lopez moved to Chicago more than two decades ago. She worked in a factory until she was laid off. Her husband worked in construction until he, too, lost his job during the pandemic. Rather than seeking forms of public assistance, Lopez said they’ve been relying on help from nonprofits and religious organizations.

“I feel like there are a lot of people in the same situation,” the Little Village resident said.

In 2019, under guidance from the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expanded the definition of the so-called public charge rule and made it more difficult for some poor immigrants to be granted legal permanent residency status. The rule change would bar immigrants who have received government assistance like food stamps, housing vouchers or Medicaid. It also barred immigrants from obtaining legal status, if they might obtain those benefits in the future.

The rule change immediately sparked a long and complicated court battle that included three separate legal challenges, one of which made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. All the way, the Trump administration fought back, appealing the ruling of a lower court that had temporarily blocked the rule change.

But that two-year legal battle ended on Wednesday when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss its defense of the expanded public charge rule.

On Wednesday, Lopez attended a press conference organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one of the Illinois groups that fought the rule change. During the virtual event, immigration advocates celebrated the move by President Joe Biden’s administration.

“The 2019 public charge rule was not in keeping with our nation’s values. It penalized those who access health benefits and other government services available to them,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas, in a statement.

Now that the expanded definition is gone. DHS will still use a 1999 interim field guidance to determine if an immigrant adjusting their status can potentially become a public charge to the government. Under that rule, only two types of public benefits are considered. The first one is cash assistance, like those received through programs like Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance For Needy Families. The second form of assistance considered is institutionalization for long-term care paid by the government.

Under this rule, immigrants have to provide an affidavit of support from a sponsor acknowledging that they accept financial responsibility for the immigrant being sponsored. If the affidavit is signed by the sponsor and meets certain requirements, the immigrants applying for an adjustment of immigration status are usually not considered a public charge, according to Militza Pagan, attorney with the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, another group that fought the rule change.

“Today immigrants no longer have to choose between their immigration status and their family’s health and well-being because we can now celebrate the end of the Trump administration’s cruel policy against poor immigrants of color,” Pagan said.

Pagan represented the Illinois plaintiff, ICIRR, in one of the legal challenges to the expanded rule. Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was also a plaintiff in that case.

“We are relieved and grateful for today’s hard-fought win. This rule should never have been put in place. No one should live in fear that accessing critical food, housing, and health care resources will threaten their immigration status. I am proud to be a part of the brave team that took on this fight and saw it through to a victory,” Foxx said in a statement.

While advocates celebrated the victory, they also acknowledged the public charge rule’s chilling effect on immigrant communities during a particularly difficult time: living through the worst pandemic in our lifetimes.

“Families can now feel confident in applying for programs and services meant to provide them a safety net during these very challenging times,” said Illinois Department of Human Services Secretary Grace Hou.

“For every new program we created for pandemic support,” she said, “there were hundreds, if not thousands, of eligible families that were deterred from accepting assistance.”

Other advocates agreed with Hou.

Inhe Choi, executive director for the HANA Center, said the confusion over the public charge rule started even before it was implemented. Many of the Asian immigrants that go to her center for support refused to get government help because of this rule.

“The fear and confusion is very real, and it’s been hurting our community,” Choi said.

Choi provided multiple examples of immigrants who were afraid of seeking government help because they were afraid of how it might impact their own immigration case or a family member’s. Choi talked about a young pregnant mom who refused to apply for state benefits and a diabetic man who was afraid to sign up for Medicaid because he thought it might hurt his family’s chances of getting a green card.

Luvia Quiñones, director of health policy at the ICIRR, said the group collaborated with other organizations to conduct a survey, which showed that immigrants were not only not applying for benefits but they were disenrolling from programs.

“Today, we celebrate that immigrants can seek public benefits without fearing future repercussions, and that immigrants will not be barred from gaining status because they are too old, too young, not educated enough, or not wealthy enough,” she said. “This is the first step to rebuilding trust between immigrants and the government, which is especially crucial as we work to finally bring an end to the pandemic.”

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

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