An immigrant client recently told me her newborn received Medicaid, and she asked me if this could harm her chances of getting a green card. I hated the answer I had to give her: Yes, it might.
A new Trump administration regulation could penalize immigrants, like my client, from obtaining permanent legal status if they utilize most forms of public assistance, from health care to housing. So I told her and many other clients that they may be taking a risk if they get this kind of help.
This is particularly painful for me, because my mother used public health care for our family when my brothers and I were kids. At Harris County Public Health clinics, we got our vaccines and saw a doctor when we got sick. Staying in good health allowed my parents to earn a living — she was a waitress; he was a mechanic — and helped my brothers and me do well in school.
By the time I became a citizen at age 18, thanks to the 1986 Reagan immigration reform law that put about 3 million unauthorized immigrants on a pathway to citizenship, I was poised to become a successful adult. I attended college, law school and the police academy. In 2010, I became an officer in the Houston Police Department, and in 2015, I opened my law firm in the city.
In other words, I received some limited public help when I was a child and went on to spend two years as a public servant, helping to keep our city safe. Today, I’m continuing to pay back that investment by employing five people, paying business taxes and taking on about five pro bono cases per year.
My immigrant clients want only the same opportunity to contribute. But the Trump administration’s proposed rule change could dash these hopes. For immigrants hoping to secure green cards, the proposal drastically broadens the definition of a “public charge,” or what it means to be “dependent” on the government. Currently, an immigrant is considered a “public charge” if he or she receives receive cash benefits worth more than 51 percent of their income.
Technically, the proposed rule change would not impact my client’s baby, since the child is a natural-born citizen. Further, the rule is not retroactive; the current language doesn’t state that my client would be penalized for enrolling the child in Medicaid. But in many respects, the government’s proposed rule change is extremely vague. The new 400-page regulation adds potentially disqualifying factors that have little to do with one’s ability or likelihood to contribute to the economy. For example, a parent could be barred for having a child with a chronic illness, a home mortgage, a less-than-perfect credit score or an annual income under $63,000. And in practice, individual immigration officials reviewing green card applications would likely have significant leeway in how the rule is applied. So out of an abundance of caution, I’ve been forced to put my clients who are applying for permanent residency in a terrible spot, letting them know that even going to the county health clinic that treated my chicken pox could penalize them down the road.
If adopted, the public-charge rule would not only be worrisome for my clients. An analysis by the bipartisan nonprofit New American Economy finds it could negatively impact some of the industries in which they work. Five percent of all construction workers and 4.4 percent of the hospitality workforce could be impacted.
And it’s not just low-income children — many of them American-born — who will lose the ability to grow up healthy and safe because of the new rule. Many middle class immigrants and their kids will be impacted, simply because they need a little help.
When I was 10 years old, President Ronald Reagan gave my family a chance to contribute to this great county, and I’m grateful. But today we’re not even talking about unauthorized immigrants. The new rule could upend the lives and the potential of a nearly 7 million legal immigrants, who are vital to our communities and our economy. I hope our leaders understand that.