The governor and leaders of immigrant, labor and health-care organizations were all voicing opposition Tuesday to a Trump Administration rule they say will penalize legal immigrants who rely on food stamps, housing assistance, school lunch and other government social programs.
“This new rule targets vulnerable immigrant families who are legally pursuing the American dream and forces them to forgo public services in order to stay on the path to citizenship,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “This cruel policy will cause many eligible and needy families – including children and U.S. citizens – to go without essential food, housing, and medical services.
“When families lack housing and medical care, when children go to school hungry, when parents go to work sick, all of our Connecticut communities pay the price.”
The governor was referring to a rule that is part of a far-reaching policy aimed at slowing the flow of legal immigration and reducing the number of poor immigrants by forbidding admittance into the United States to those deemed at risk of becoming “public charges.”
The new rule, scheduled to take effect Oct. 15, 2019, will broaden the definition of a “public charge” to include not just those primarily dependent on public financial assistance programs, but also anyone who uses a public benefit such as Medicaid, food stamps, other nutrition-related programs or housing assistance. It defines a public charge as an individual who receives one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months within any 36 month period.
Wealth, education, age and English-language skills will take on greater weight in applications for a green card or permanent residency under the new rule.
Connecticut Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre S. Gifford echoed Lamont’s concerns about its impact, saying it will cause immigrant families “to forgo essential medical and nutrition services in order to stay on the path to citizenship. It is a particularly cruel discrimination against legal immigrants of lesser means.”
“Just as one in four Connecticut residents access these essential services and benefits, our legal immigrant families must also have access without fear of draconian repercussions from capricious federal immigration action,” she said.
State Attorney General William Tong announced Monday that he intends to join other states in a challenge to the new rule. California has also stated its opposition to what its attorney general called the “vile” piece of governance, as has New York.
Ciro Gutierrez, who came to the U.S. from Peru in 1994, said he remembers two women — both single mothers — who came from Peru at about the same time and who would have fit that definition of “public charges.”
Gutierrez said the women, both of whom lived near him in Glastonbury, received food stamps and housing assistance for several years as one worked to get her Peruvian college degree re-certified in the U.S. and the other went to a university and got an accounting degree.
“Today they are professional and their kids are professionals and they don’t need any help,” said Gutierrez, who was trained as an economist in Peru and now works as a janitor at the University of Connecticut. "They own their own houses and they receive no aid from the government.”
“I think this rule is discriminatory because people come here to work hard, contribute to the economy, contribute to this country,” said Gutierrez, speaking through a translator. “In this particular case, they chose to study to better themselves and to provide for their families.”
He said the public assistance is not “just so people can maintain themselves in poverty. It’s to give them a base so that they — by themselves — can lift themselves up out of poverty.”
Juan Hernandez, vice-president of 32BJ SEIU, the union that represents Gutierrez and that has a membership that is largely made of immigrants, said the public charge rule released by Trump “assaults the ability of taxpaying, legal immigrants to protect their health and feed their children by punishing them for accessing the most basic benefits needed to survive. If this final rule becomes law in 60 days, it could force new American families to forego health care, go hungry or become homeless in order to secure a future in American for themselves or their families.”
Tark Richard Aouadi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Connecticut (CAIR-CT), said the policy is likely to affect “minorities and people of color disproportionately.”
“I’m not saying it’s a racist policy, but I’m saying the effect can be disproportionate to people not in the majority,” Aouadi said.
He said the “language tends to exclude people of color who are economically disadvantaged and limits all immigrants’ access to good health care and programs designed to promote the health and well-being of their children. It’s just another attempt to strike fear in the hearts of the immigrant communities here in Connecticut.”
Carolina Bortolletto, a cofounder of Connecticut Students for a Dream and an undocumented resident who came from Brazil as a child, said the rule would “change who comes to this country.”
If you’re coming from a poor background, which, let’s be honest, a lot of those people are people of color, they might be deemed a ‘public charge,'” said Bortolleto. “Whoever is reviewing the visa application or green card application could say: ‘Oh they are coming from a poor country. They don’t have any money. How are they going to survive here in the U.S.? They might apply for public benefits. I’m going to deny them.’ ”
“I think this new rule kind of shows the hand of the administration because they have been saying they want to stop illegal immigration and they are fine with legal immigration,” Bortolleto said.”But this new policy is not about undocumented immigrants.”
She said the Trump Administration policies were “never really about illegal or legal immigration. It was about all this anti-immigrant rhetoric, keeping out the people that this white supremacist administration doesn’t want here. It’s about keeping people of color out and immigrants out.”
Robert J. Fishman, executive director of the Connecticut Immigrant & Refugee Coalition, said that “immigrants young and old add value to our state and they should not be made fearful when they temporarily need to access a federal government safety net program.”
He said, “It’s not like immigrants come here to be a public charge. They come here to make a better life for themselves.”
But he said problems arise. “Somebody gets sick and they need medical help. You have a kid at school and a father starts a job and gets immediately laid off. The school says they are eligible for the school lunch program and this is saying maybe they are not. Now there’s a hunger issue.”
He said the administration has had a “constant overall anti-immigrant message” with certain exceptions.
“We’ll make an exception for a wealthy Chinese person who wants to buy up a building in Manhattan and can afford it and feels like he wants to become a citizen,” said Fishman. “That’s OK. That’s not what America is all about.”
Jennifer Jackson, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Hospital Association, said the state’s “hospitals and health care systems are committed to building a healthier Connecticut — a promise that will be harder to fulfill if legal immigrants seeking a path to citizenship are unable or afraid to access needed medical care and services that address social determinants of health.
“This misguided rule will negatively impact public health in Connecticut and across the country, and we hope the Department of Homeland Security will reconsider issuing it.”