Immigrant and health care advocates in Illinois say they are already seeing fear ripple through communities over proposed changes to the immigration system. The concerns are tied to a draft that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published over the weekend, broadening criteria for designating immigrants and visa applicants as current or likely “public charges.”
The draft changes would not affect all noncitizen immigrants who reside lawfully in the U.S., and specifically excludes categories of immigrants such as refugees, asylees, and immigrants who are victims of trafficking and domestic violence. But it could apply to a wide swath of noncitizens who live in the U.S. on family-sponsored visas, such as spouses, minor children, and parents. For these categories, it would make it difficult to obtain a green card or extend visa status if the individual receives any of an array of public benefits, including SNAP food assistance, Medicare Part D, housing vouchers, and Medicaid.
“We don’t have data that can drill down precisely on who might actually be affected [in Illinois],” said Carrie Chapman, director of advocacy for the Legal Council for Health Justice. “But because the chilling effect already seems so significant in communities, I’m not sure that data point is all that useful to us.”
But Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the draft changes appear designed to favor higher-income, working-age individuals at the expense of others.
“Because of the way that this new proposed rule is structured, children under 18 or parents older than 61 could be considered public charges and therefore be barred,” Tsao said. “And that is probably one of the most profound and perhaps more dangerous aspects of this proposed rule.”
The draft has not yet been formally proposed in the federal register, which will trigger a 60-day public comment period. But community leaders said they’re already seeing immigrants turn in their LINK food assistance or Medicaid cards, or even disenroll their children from the Illinois AllKids health care program. This, in turn, has put pressure on other community resources that traditionally served only those who were undocumented and could not access public benefit programs.
Itedal Shalabi, co-founder and executive director of Arab American Family Services in Southwest suburban Bridgeview, said her community had heard rumors for several months that such changes could come. She believes that’s what’s leading more people than ever to use the free food pantry that her organization runs.
“It’s the lentils that we use, it’s the type of rice that we cook with, it’s the grape leaf jars,” said Shalabi. “Now it’s being used more than before because of this issue that: Where do I turn to if I don’t want to get my food stamps?”
Odette Yousef is a reporter on the WBEZ Race, Class & Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.