Fear of reprisal kept immigrants from accessing federal aid in pandemic

Fear, fueled by the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, kept many eligible low-income immigrant families from accessing non-cash benefits and other federal assistance programs in 2020, even as the pandemic deepened economic hardship, according to two new analyses released Wednesday from the Urban Institute.

The reports, which draw on surveys conducted in December 2020, indicate that more than a quarter of adults in low-income immigrant families—and nearly a third of those with children—did not seek benefits for which they were eligible. Among families with non-permanent members, the trend was particularly striking: 43.9 percent avoided benefits out of fear that doing so would compromise green card or temporary visa applications, or otherwise compromise their status. More than 18 million children—about a quarter of all kids in the United States—live with at least one foreign-born parent.

The surveys—conducted after the presidential election, but while Donald Trump was still in office—make clear the chilling effect of Trump’s policies, including his 2018 expansion of the public charge rule, which penalizes green-card and citizenship applicants who seek certain federal benefits. Although President Joe Biden reversed the expanded rule in April, the analyses highlight the need for sustained outreach to restore trust among immigrant communities.

Immigrant households were disproportionately affected by the pandemic’s economic fallout, both because they were largely excluded from initial federal relief efforts, such as the CARES Act, and because they are overrepresented in industries hit by lockdown measures. Nearly half of immigrants with children reported that someone in their family lost work or income due to the pandemic, and more than 40 percent faced food insecurity in 2020, according to Urban’s reports. But even as need grew, 22 percent reported avoiding nutrition programs.

Food insecurity stems from other forms of economic hardship, as families are forced to choose among basic necessities. Last year, around half of low-income immigrant families worried about whether they’d be able to pay rent or a mortgage, utility bills or medical costs, according to the reports.

“Many immigrant families with children avoided assistance even as they were experiencing hardships such as food insecurity, financial difficulties, and problems accessing needed health care,” Jennifer Haley, a research associate at the Urban Institute, said in a statement.

The public charge rule predates Trump’s presidency, but his administration expanded its scope to include non-cash benefits such as SNAP, Medicaid or housing assistance. Advocates say that the rule, against a backdrop of xenophobic rhetoric and policy, fueled a climate of fear. Immigrants not only shied away from benefits for which they were eligible, but also unenrolled from programs that didn’t even fall under the rule’s purview out of concern that policies could change overnight.

Nearly six months into Biden’s presidency—and more than a month after he reversed the expanded rule—anxiety lingers. “We’re all really concerned that just stopping the rule isn’t going to filter down to families and change behaviors,” said Hamutal Bernstein, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute.

Indeed, benefits providers say that the fact of a new administration and a changed policy have yet to drive a significant uptick in benefits applications. “The amount of work it takes to overcome the fear created by policy is extraordinary,” said Lisa David, the president and CEO of Public Health Solutions, which supports low-income families in New York City. “And we haven’t seen that done yet.”

The Urban analyses follow an April report by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative on the enduring impact of the public charge rule. The number of Latino children of immigrant parents who lack medical care could increase from 64,000 to over 180,000 as parents avoid benefits programs or unenroll, the report found, based on survey data from seven California regions.

“There’s a general feeling among immigrants that, regardless of who’s in office, using public benefits will get them or their family members placed at a disadvantage for regularization,” said Rodrigo Domínguez-Villegas, one of the authors of the UCLA report. While Biden’s reversal of the expanded rule is a “good step,” alleviating fears will require “federal partnerships with trusted sources in immigrant communities,” he said.

Trump’s erratic policies led many immigrants to believe that “a president can get into office and, with a stroke of a pen, completely change the rules,” said Domínguez-Villegas. Trump’s use of executive action to harden immigration policies wasn’t lost on immigrants, he added. “When Biden comes in and reverses it, we’ll celebrate that, while keeping in mind that it just reinforces that a new administration can come in and change it again.”

In its new reports, the Urban Institute also stressed the need for sustained outreach to immigrant communities—spreading awareness through trusted community members, and ensuring that all relevant documents and applications are available in multiple languages. Federal, state and local agencies can work with schools and healthcare providers to get the word out about benefits programs and new administration policy.

Prior to the Trump administration, and well before the pandemic, immigrants faced barriers to benefits that the Biden administration could reduce. “There are so many reasons for low participation,” Bernstein explained, whether it’s mistrust, confusing language, or cumbersome application processes.

Beyond last month’s reversal of the public charge expansion, there’s little indication that the administration has done much to restore trust and boost participation in assistance programs. When contacted by FERN regarding the policy change and outreach efforts, a spokesperson for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services initially said the rule had not been reversed, before subsequently clarifying that the agency was “in the midst of executing a robust communications strategy that includes collaboration with external government agencies.” As evidence of that “robust” strategy, the spokesperson referred to a statement indicating the agency’s commitment to partnering with local entities, and to social media outreach—pointing to two tweets that only appear in English and link to official USCIS statements.