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Trump DHS policy could leave Monterey County's immigrant-driven economy, community reeling

By Eduardo Cuevas
The Salinas Californian, August 13, 2019

A new Trump administration rule would deny permanent status to immigrants in the country legally if officials believe they use public benefits.

Yet state and local officials say the new rule could negatively impact the economy and residents of Monterey County, home to California's largest noncitizen population by percentage.

Released Monday and set to take effect Oct. 15, the final rule by President Donald Trump's Department of Homeland Security has been planned for months. Using the term “public charge,” the rule applies to immigrants who use benefits like food stamps, Medicaid and housing vouchers.

While administration officials say the rule ensures immigrants can support themselves, researchers say the rule could make it harder for lower income immigrants, to renew lawful status, obtain visas or permanent residency — also known as a green card.

The new rule’s impact could spread to non-immigrants who use those services, state and local officials say.

“This vile rule is the Trump Administration’s latest attack on families and lower income communities of color,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “It will harm our communities, schools, and workplaces by weaponizing essential healthcare, housing, and nutrition programs.”

On Tuesday, San Francisco and Santa Clara County filed a joint lawsuit to block the new rule. Monterey County officials said they are exploring options but it was too soon to say whether they planned to take legal action.

More than half of California noncitizens may be impacted from what the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit think-tank, calls the new rule's "chilling effects" that cause fear or confusion in families. Researchers found others, including U.S.-born relatives, could stop receiving benefits they are entitled to receive.

When the public charge rule change was unveiled last fall, Monterey County officials said they already saw declines in new applications for Medi-Cal and CalFresh, California’s versions of Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), respectively. Nonprofit groups said they also saw families disenroll from benefits out of fear.

"Monterey County relies on countless immigrants who contribute to the service, agricultural, and child care fields and yet are the working poor," said Francine Rodd, executive director for First 5 Monterey County, which focuses on early childhood development, in a statement. The agency previously spoke out against the proposal last fall.

"Families are now feeling like they face a decision that can potentially jeopardize their legal status or how they provide for their children."

What is the new rule?

Trump administration officials argue the rule falls within immigration laws meant to ensure immigrants support themselves. The proposal was first unveiled in October 2018, followed by a 60-day period with more than 266,000 public comments; DHS officials noted most opposed the rule.

The public charge rule originated in the late 19th century, used to deem certain noncitizens inadmissible. More recently, it's been used against noncitizens whose income primarily relied on cash assistance and long-term institutional medical care.

"Throughout our history, self-sufficiency has been a core tenet of the American dream,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in a statement. “Self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance laid the foundation of our nation and have defined generations of hardworking immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States ever since."

“Research demonstrates that most of these individuals have jobs and that our immigrant population on balance contributes more to the economy than they receive in public assistance.”
Lauren Suwansupa, public information officer for the Monterey County Department of Social Services

Under the new rule, immigration officers could consider public assistance in denying legal status, along with other factors like English proficiency, education, and household income. In addition to considering whether an applicant currently receives benefits, they will also determine whether there is a likelihood that person will do so in the future.

Benefits included would be cash assistance, supplemental security income, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, SNAP, most forms of Medicaid, and certain housing programs.

The rule applies to individuals who use one or more designated benefits accumulated for over a year, within any three-year period. For example, two benefits used within a month counts for two months and could be used to deny an immigrants' application.

Still, it would exclude active and reserve duty personnel in the armed forces, certain international adoptees, and children acquiring citizenship. It also wouldn't apply to Medicaid used by certain immigrants under 21 years old and pregnant women, school-based services for those with disabilities, and emergency medical services.

Humanitarian-based immigration programs that include refugees as well as victims of crime, wouldn’t fall under the policy.

"Through the enforcement of the public charge inadmissibility law, we will promote these long-standing ideals and immigrant success," Cuccinelli said.

Effects on immigrant state, county

In California, more than a third of noncitizens, about 1.8 million people, are estimated to use benefits classified under the new DHS rule, slightly higher than the national average, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

And more than one in five Monterey County residents are noncitizens, the highest percentage out of all California counties, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Most come from Mexico or Central America.

In an email, Lauren Suwansupa, public information officer for the Monterey County Department of Social Services, said staff are still reviewing the final rule.

"We can share that our department feels that these changes would penalize families that have followed complex immigration laws to be here legally but are struggling to subsist in California, where the cost of living is high but wages remain relatively stagnant," Suwansupa wrote. "Research demonstrates that most of these individuals have jobs and that our immigrant population on balance contributes more to the economy than they receive in public assistance."

“Shame on the Trump administration for expanding a rule with racist roots in a shameful ploy to rig the immigration system for the wealthy.”
Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center

The County Welfare Directors Association of California, representing human service agency directors across all 58 California counties, condemned the Trump administration's final rule Monday.

Legal permanent residents working in some of Monterey County's biggest industries, such as agriculture, hospitality and construction, would overwhelmingly fall within public charge guidelines, the Migration Policy Institute found.

More than 90% of farmworkers in the Salinas and Pajaro valleys are immigrants, according to a 2018 farmworker housing study by the California Institute for Rural Studies. Officials and industry leaders have similarly acknowledged Monterey County's hospitality and construction sectors have large foreign-born workforces.

A call to the Monterey Bay Economic Partnership was not immediately returned, and the Monterey County Farm Bureau declined to comment for this story.

Beyond potential impacts to the local labor force, less people using public assistance could signal a reduced need overall for the services, jeopordizing future funding for those services to all residents.

Annually, about one-third of Monterey County residents use Medi-Cal in some form, and $75 million in CalFresh benefits come to the region, the county Department of Social Services said last fall.

Monterey County health officials have also warned the Trump policy would undermine economic and public health outcomes as people forego basic preventative care services until it's too late, resulting in higher costs to treat medical issues.

Demographic implications

Migration Policy Institute researchers say the new rule would most heavily impact immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa, while benefiting people from Europe, creating racial implications for migration.

"Shame on the Trump administration for expanding a rule with racist roots in a shameful ploy to rig the immigration system for the wealthy," said Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the Los Angeles-based advocacy organization California Immigrant Policy Center, in a statement.

Critics say this new rule has racist motivations that fall in line with past rhetoric used by Trump when discussing immigration.

In 2018 immigration discussions, Trump reportedly used racist language to advocate for immigrants from Norway rather than Haiti, El Salvador and African countries. He previously referred to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists to launch his presidential campaign.

The rule also heavily favors immigrant household incomes 250% above the U.S. poverty line. This means more than two-thirds of Mexican, Central American and African immigrants — and over half of Asian noncitizens — would fail to meet the threshold, the Migration Policy Institute found.

Salinas immigration attorney Magnolia Zarraga said she has already had clients denied legal status because of public charge since early 2018. Existing law, she says, is already broad and the administration has made a point to limit legal immigration.

"It's still a huge change and it will unfortunately have a negative impact for so many families on the Central Coast," she said. "But I think it's something we've already been seeing the effects of in a way. This just puts it in writing for us."

Zarraga said she is telling clients to seek advice on immigration law before submitting applications, even if that means postponing submissions.

"It affects a huge portion of the population, if not every single family, because there are so many mixed-status families," she said.

USA Today contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Eduardo Cuevas at ecuevas@thecalifornian.com or 831-269-9363. To support this kind of work, please subscribe.

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