Last week, the Trump Administration announced they had finalized changes to a policy known as “public charge,” which would put individuals’ legal immigration status at risk if they use critical health, nutrition and other support programs. We believe this policy will make America sicker and poorer, targeting vulnerable immigrants and their families to promote a culture of fear.
For many years, the government has used a “public charge” test as part of the immigration process to identify people who are likely to depend on the government for support. If the government determines that a person is likely to become a public charge, it can deny them admission to the U.S. or lawful permanent residence (also known as green card status). The new policy expands the list of programs that can be considered when determining whether someone is likely to become a public charge, including certain health care, food and housing programs that provide critical support to families. The new policy also establishes standards for income, health, age and English proficiency for immigration officials to consider when evaluating an individual case.
As a result of these changes, millions of legally-present immigrant families – including those with children who are U.S. citizens – may forgo the medical, nutrition and housing programs they need to keep their families safe and healthy out of fear of jeopardizing their immigration status. This will have particularly disastrous effects for pregnant women, babies and toddlers now and in the future.
We know that good nutrition and quality health care during pregnancy and early childhood play a foundational role in enabling a child to grow, learn and thrive. In addition, a growing body of scientific research indicates that the foundations for lifelong health—including predispositions to obesity and certain chronic diseases—are set during this period. This research also shows us that kids are healthiest when their parents are healthy. Children whose parents have access to adequate health care are more likely to be covered themselves and to receive regular checkups from a doctor. Without access to nutritious foods and medical care during the first 1,000 days, the health and wellbeing of women, children and their families are put at risk.
Unfortunately, some immigrant families have already turned away from critical public health programs. For example, while WIC is not among the programs included in the new rule, WIC agencies in at least 18 states say they’ve seen drops of up to 20% in enrollment, and they attribute the change largely to fears about the public charge policy. Without the support that these programs provide, many mothers and young children will be put at risk for malnutrition and serious health problems now and in the future.
Instead of making life more difficult for some of our country’s most vulnerable individuals, we must safeguard their nutrition, health and economic security.