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Public charge, COVID-19, and how local immigration activists are adapting

<h6><strong>Design Credit: Harsimran Makkad</strong></h6>
Design Credit: Harsimran Makkad

The Trump administration has changed American immigration policy so rapidly that Dina Paulson-McEwen can barely keep up. As the executive director of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF), an advocacy group founded in Princeton and based in Trenton, Paulson-McEwen spends much of her time informing immigrants of these changes.

Through various forms of executive action, President Donald Trump has dramatically altered federal immigration policy. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a non-partisan think tank, “some of these changes have been slowed or stopped by the courts, [...] but most have gone into effect.”

And at a time when the world faces a public-health crisis, Paulson-McEwen said a recent Trump administration decision — and the confusion it has caused — is preventing immigrants from seeking medical care.

On Feb. 24, the Supreme Court approved a new Trump administration rule, which broadens the scope of immigrants considered “public charges,” effectively making it harder for low-income immigrants to become permanent residents.

The term “public charge” has its origins in the Immigration Act of 1882, which barred “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge” from entering the country. Today, the designation primarily applies to individuals seeking lawful permanent resident status in the United States. Prior to the recent rule change, U.S. policy made obtaining permanent resident status more difficult for immigrants who use federal and state public cash assistance programs. 

The U.S. government has now expanded the term to incorporate certain non-cash programs, such as Medicaid, food assistance benefits, and some forms of housing aid. According to the MPI, the new rule could place “nearly half of the U.S. noncitizen population ... at risk of a public charge determination.” That figure would be “up from the current 3 percent.”

Ken Cuccinelli, the Department of Homeland Security’s Acting Deputy Secretary, told Fox News in February that the rule change would ensure immigrants can “stand on their own two feet” and will not “become a burden on taxpayers.”

On a call with The Daily Princetonian, however, Paulson-McEwen denounced the public-charge rule change as an “assault on health.”

Giridhar G. Mallya — a senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Princeton-based philanthropy organization focused on public health — backed up this statement. In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Mallya said the altered rule is one of many factors deterring immigrants from seeking medical care — a crucial issue as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates in the U.S.

“Even before COVID, there were many dynamics that were keeping immigrants from seeking medical care — general anti-immigrant sentiment that’s increased over the past couple of years, an enhancement of deportations and other immigration enforcement actions, and even something like the public-charge rule,” he said.

While local, state, and federal authorities are instructing people to seek medical care when they are sick, Mallya says that the directive “becomes a recommendation that many folks cannot follow through on,” whether due to financial constraints or fears related to immigration status.

“It’s a question for [immigrants] about their physical health versus their ability to stay in their communities and stay in this country stably,” Mallya said.

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Whether their ability to stay in the country is truly at risk, confusion surrounding the policy has already caused immigrants to avoid care. According to Urban Institute polling research from December 2018, one in seven immigrants reported avoiding public benefits well before the public-charge rule change’s enactment, even though the rule change would not have affected some of the respondents.

According to the New York City Department of Social Services Health Commissioner, the public charge rule is “sowing confusion” and “creating fear.”

Through providing education and combating misinformation, Paulson-McEwen said LALDEF is trying to alleviate public confusion.

“The fear of the recent changes to the public charge are real,” she noted. “We are sharing information that articulates what is true and what is not, which is circulating widely throughout nonprofit networks regionally and nationally.”

LALDEF’s Adult Education division offers classes in Trenton and compiles resources to help Mercer County immigrants understand their rights.

“The immigration system is really quite broken in our country,” Paulson-McEwen said, citing long lead times for various processes. “It’s very complicated to navigate and understand, and if you don’t know the language, imagine how much more complicated that is.”

LALDEF is not the only Mercer county organization confronting these issues.

In Princeton, where 26 percent of the population is foreign-born, around double the national average, the public library has hosted “Ask-a-Lawyer” events since 1999. At these events, which occur quarterly, lawyers provide free, private consultations on immigration issues with Spanish translators available.

The event is co-sponsored by the Princeton Public Library (PPL), Princeton Housing Authority, the Mercer County Bar Association, and Latin American Task Force — the group out of which LALDEF initially grew.

LALDEF has offered similar programming in Trenton, with drop-in hours weekly and $35 initial consultations for Mercer County residents below 250 percent of the poverty line. There, like at the PPL, individuals can ask for advice on immigration matters.

When it comes to providing advice on immigration policy and public health — whether in person or virtually — organizations like LALDEF strive to keep their information up-to-date. Among other steps, LALDEF engages in “ongoing conversations with like-minded organizations” to provide the most accurate resources it can.

“We’re talking about people and people’s lives, not just statistics,” Paulson-McEwen said. “So it’s very important that when we’re asked a question like, ‘Will me participating in this service affect my life, my children’s ability to go to school, or my immigrant status?,’ we have the answer.”

Paulson-McEwen also that since Trump entered the White House, demand for the services that LALDEF provides has “definitely” increased. In recent years, LALDEF’s role has become “significantly more important.” And as the COVID-19 pandemic prompts nations to close their borders, U.S. immigration agencies to change how they operate, and organizations to move online, this job has not gotten any easier.

Both LALDEF and the PPL were recently forced to close their physical facilities, and this month’s “Ask-a-Lawyer” event in Princeton was canceled.

These organizations, however, have been conducting programming digitally. The PPL, along with local government agencies, recently launched a joint COVID-19 information website, translatable to over 70 languages, detailing current local regulations and providing advice for businesses and temporarily unemployed individuals.

Employees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are also working remotely, conducting virtual meetings and directing individuals concerned about COVID-19 to the CDC and NIH websites. And according to Paulson-McEwen, LALDEF is dedicated to carrying out its mission from the web.

“We recognize in vulnerable times, our most vulnerable are hit the hardest,” she noted. “We remain committed to serving our clients the best we can, through virtual means, while our office is closed.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought immigrants in Mercer County new challenges. In Trenton, LALDEF Community Organizer Laura Mora-Leal noted, some are struggling to pay rent and afford food with hotels, malls, and factories around the area closing or reducing workers’ hours. 

Some of these issues have been resolved at the state level, with New Jersey suspending utility shut-offs, evictions, and foreclosures. And at the federal level, the Senate has considered various forms of direct financial relief — though some uncertainty remains as to what that will look like.

Through its Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Princeton Children’s Fund has been fielding donations and sending funds to families impacted by work stoppages. Princeton’s Arm in Arm is also accepting donations and providing a mobile food pantry service.

And in addition to helping spread accurate Spanish-language information, Mora-Leal said LALDEF has been giving immigrants in Trenton information about food pantry distribution sites across the city.

Paulson-McEwen emphasized that organizations such as LALDEF will continue to adapt and work on behalf of immigrants — no matter the challenges and regardless of state or federal policy changes.

“We’re a stable force, so if the government is ping-ponging and things are changing, we’re not going to falter in what we do,” she said. “We will only try to be better.”