This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Updated April 10, 2018: Mayor Jim Kenney has requested a meeting with federal officials to discuss the Trump Administration’s proposals, which it says could “increase hunger and uncompensated care and impact our schools, child welfare agencies, public health systems, and hospitals.” Details below.
The latest leaks in Washington indicate that the Trump administration remains serious about discouraging documented immigrants and their children from using federally funded health and nutrition programs – a policy change that could have wide-ranging implications for the Philadelphia School District and its students.
“What they’re saying is that they’re going to greatly broaden the conditions in which [immigrants] could be considered a ‘public charge,’” said Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “This would count against you.”
A draft of proposed new rules from the Department of Homeland Security, obtained by The Washington Post, shows that the agency hopes to significantly redefine the so-called “public charge doctrine,” allowing caseworkers to consider an immigrant family’s use of a wide range of public benefits when deciding whether to approve green cards or other changes in legal status.
This could penalize documented immigrants whose families use virtually any federally funded, means-tested, non-cash assistance, including nutrition programs, Medicaid, and a host of tax credits and health-care subsidies.
Advocates say the policy unjustly discourages documented immigrants from using public benefits even when they pay taxes and their children are U.S. citizens. Administration officials say they’re just watching out for the taxpayers.
And Philadelphia School District officials say they’re keeping an eye on the policy, which has yet to be officially discussed in any detail despite more than a year of leaks. Among the outstanding questions is whether it will affect the District’s school lunch programs.
“We believe that every student in need, regardless of their background or immigration status, should have access to breakfast and lunch programs in school,” said District spokesman H. Lee Whack Jr. “We will continue to monitor potential federal legislation that might impact our children who benefit from these important programs.”
The federally funded school lunch program feeds thousands of District students annually. The District has a widely praised “universal school meals” policy. Medicaid pays for outpatient services and health screenings for students as well, through the city’s Community Behavioral Health program. The use of either by students from immigrant families could potentially become a factor when their parents or guardians seek a green card or other changes in legal status.
Homeland Security officials have sent their final draft to the Office of Management and Budget for review and have declined to comment on the leaked drafts, saying only that they will release a final version sometime this year.
But the bottom line, says Kathy Fisher of the Coalition Against Hunger, is that if a plan that’s anything like the latest leaked draft goes into effect, many students could soon find themselves with less to eat and less access to reliable health care — neither of which would help them in the classroom.
“The reality is, even families that come and try to do the right thing, work hard, play by the rules — they’ll be scared to get help,” Fisher said.
The latest leaked proposal mirrors a draft executive order from the Trump administration that was first reported 14 months ago but never implemented or discussed publicly in any detail.
Since then, the task of rewriting “public charge” policies has been taken up by the Department of Homeland Security. In late 2017, the agency announced its intention to draft new rules, and some details leaked in February.
The draft obtained by the Post in late March is the most extensive version of the possible changes yet reported, and “presumably very close to what went to OMB,” Greenberg said.
Throughout the process, even as some details have shifted, the leaks have indicated that the Trump administration has consistently focused on shifting the “public charge” determination from narrow to broad, penalizing not just documented immigrants who personally receive cash benefits or costly services, but those whose children and families receive virtually any form of publicly funded assistance or subsidy.
“The current standard just focuses on whether someone is receiving cash assistance or long-term institutionalization,” said Greenberg. “It doesn’t look at non-cash help like SNAP [food stamp] benefits or Medicaid coverage.”
But the latest leaked Department of Homeland Security proposal “goes much further,” Greenberg said, defining a “public benefit” as “any government assistance, whether cash or noncash, that is ‘means-tested or intended to help the individual meet basic living requirements, such as housing, food or medical care.’”
The draft also says that federal benefits used by “any dependent” — including children, spouses, or other household members — can be counted against parents or guardians.
It makes no exemption for children who are U.S. citizens and specifically cites a number of widely used programs that would be considered a “public benefit,” including SNAP; the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program; the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Obamacare subsidies; and a range of tax subsidies, including the earned income tax credit.
The federally funded school lunch program is not cited one way or the other, although, like SNAP and WIC, it is a means-tested, federally funded nutrition program.
Fisher of the Coalition Against Hunger said that including school lunches in the final proposal would likely trigger a firestorm of criticism and create a major new administrative headache for districts like Philadelphia’s that offer “universal” lunch policies that don’t require individual applications.
“I don’t know what the federal government would do to enforce that,” she said. “Would they force schools to report?”
Homeland Security rules leaked in January specifically exempted “benefits under the School Lunch Act,” Greenberg said, but the latest draft no longer includes that language.
“There is a risk that it would be counted unless they make it clear that that’s not what they’re intending,” he said.
Greenberg cites some caveats, however, saying that even the more expansive rules outlined in the latest draft still give caseworkers discretion about how to handle a given case. When a child or family receives benefits, that won’t automatically disqualify anyone’s application.
And the final draft could differ in important ways from the latest leaked version, he cautioned. Whenever that final proposal is released, a public comment period will follow – typically 60 days – potentially followed by further revisions or challenges from lawmakers.
As a legal matter, it could be “months or even years” before new rules are put into place, Greenberg said.
But as a practical matter, he said, even the rumor of changes can discourage immigrant families from using public benefits. “There’s much reason to be concerned that chilling effects could occur far before any rule is finalized,” he said.
Analysts nationwide have echoed the point. A new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy contends that immigrants’ children are already getting “less access to nutrition, health care, and early care and education programs” because of fears of lost green cards and jeopardized legal status.
The National Immigration Law Center says that the proposed changes “underscore the administration’s interest in … deterring families from securing critical services.”
And the Kaiser Family Foundation wrote: “The changes would likely increase fear and confusion among all legal immigrant families, leading to decreased participation in health coverage and other programs for themselves and their children.”
Administration officials have so far declined to discuss the proposal in any detail, with Homeland Security spokesperson Tyler Houlton saying only that the agency is “committed to enforcing existing immigration law … and part of that is respecting taxpayer dollars.”
And even if school lunches end up being exempt from the policy, Fisher said, the children of immigrant families could well find themselves bringing new stresses to school as their parents shy away from getting the assistance they need whenever times get hard.
“It really limits families’ ability to get help, when they lose a job, when there’s a health crisis,” Fisher said. “Is it good that kids are hungry in class? How does that help us?”
Mayor Kenney has formally requested a meeting with the federal Office of Management and Budget to “discuss the economic significance” of the Trump Administration’s proposed changes to Homeland Security’s “public charge” rules.
In a statement released by the Office of Immigrant Affairs, Kenney officials said that budget office is “legally required” to accept the request prior to publishing its final draft of the proposed rule, which they say “may cause immigrant families to forego needed health care or go hungry in an effort to keep their families together.”
Kenney himself wrote, “We have concerns about the deep economic impact that this proposed rule would have on local and state governments, as well as the economy as a whole. If additional programs were to be included as factors in a public charge determination, we expect that many people—including eligible U.S. citizen children—who are legally eligible to participate in these programs would unenroll or refrain from applying. These changes would increase hunger and uncompensated care and impact our schools, child welfare agencies, public health systems, and hospitals.”