Immigrants seeking health care for coronavirus exempt from ‘public charge’ rule
The essential work performed by undocumented workers is at the heart of recent debates in Washington, D.C. Photo by Nicholas Chan.

Federal immigration policy has created barriers for some immigrants to get tested and treated for coronavirus, a rule which Santa Clara County officials have decried as dangerous to the public.

The “public charge” rule penalizes immigrants who are enrolled — or likely to enroll — in federally funded public assistance programs like Medicaid, reducing their chances of obtaining green cards and visas in the United States.

“(The coronavirus crisis) just highlights how foolish that rule is and how dangerous that rule is because people should have no questions, people should have no fear about accessing critical county services in this time of crisis, and that access has to be paramount,” Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced March 13 that immigrants who receive treatment for the coronavirus are exempt from the public charge, even if these services are provided by Medicaid.

“To address the possibility that some aliens impacted by COVID-19 may be hesitant to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services,” the agency wrote in a statement. “USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination.”

Immigrants who rely on benefits like food stamps, subsidized housing and government supplemental income during the coronavirus outbreak can provide “an explanation and relevant supporting documentation” for USCIS to consider in its public charge test, according to the agency.

Following the agency’s announcement, San Jose’s Office of Immigrant Affairs issued a statement to encourage anyone with symptoms of coronavirus, regardless of immigration status, to seek medical care, assuring immigrants that they will not be penalized under the public charge rule.

The public charge rule has cast a long shadow over the immigrant community since the Trump administration expanded the rule last year to include CalFresh, Section 8 voucher housing assistance and Medicaid, barring some exceptions. Fearful of the consequences of the rule, some immigrants have opted-out of government programs.

“I field calls all the time for folks who are trying to make that decision (to disenroll), and often it’s not a question of whether they should, but when they should,” California Immigrant Policy Center deputy director of programs Almas Sayeed said.

Former acting director of USCIS Ken Cuccinelli previously said the policy ensures that immigrants can “stand on their two feet,” reinforcing the American ideal of “self-sufficiency.”

But the rule has stoked fear even among immigrants who are exempt, like asylees and refugees.

“There has been a lot of fear in the community about it, a lot of miseducation and the chilling effect of the rule’s possibilities even before it became effective,” said Asian Law Alliance staff attorney Nghi Huynh. “It has chilled a lot of people from accessing public benefits services including health care.”

Williams, the county counsel, advises uninsured immigrants to seek medical care at county clinics and hospitals if they have symptoms of coronavirus. He assures that the county “serves everybody regardless of status.”

Santa Clara and San Francisco counties sued the Trump administration over the policy in August. A district judge halted it with a nationwide injunction in October, but in January, the Supreme Court lifted the injunction, allowing officials to implement it beginning Feb. 24.

In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined 17 attorneys general across the nation demanding the Trump administration halt the policy, calling it “irresponsible and reckless” during this public health crisis. California Democrat U.S. Rep. Norma Torres led 42 lawmakers in urging the Trump administration to suspend the rule.

Though the Trump administration did not rescind the rule, Torres nonetheless said the federal officials’ latest announcement is a positive step.

“What that signals to me is they know that the public charge rule is a potential health hazard in our community,” Torres told San José Spotlight. “Right now, all of us are working very very hard to save American lives, and the public charge rule stands in the way of that by preventing people … from getting the health care that they need. That is the priority: To stop the spread of this virus.”

For more information on the public charge rule, visit San Jose’s Office of Immigrant Affairs website.

Contact Nicholas Chan at [email protected] or follow @nicholaschanhk on Twitter.

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