By JEREMY WAHR
Capital News Service
LANSING — A proposal that would change how the federal government categorizes immigrants receiving public assistance could hurt the Michigan economy, advocates say.
The Department of Homeland Security wants to expand its definition of immigrants considered “public charges,” or those likely to receive their subsistence from government programs. The department can deny immigrants legal status if they are considered public charges.
The Michigan League for Public Policy estimates that at least $92 million will be cut from federal aid to the state, at least $175 million will be lost from the economy and that 1,193 jobs will be lost because of this rule. Michigan has 632,482 immigrants, according to the League.
The only benefits that cause an immigrant to be a public charge right now are cash assistance and long-term government health care. The proposed rule would add food stamps, Medicaid, government housing and low income programs that pay for prescription drugs as determining factors, according to the league.
The rule is being proposed to prevent immigrants who cannot support themselves from becoming citizens, said Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary for the Department of Homeland Security. The rule also intends to promote self-sufficiency and protect finite resources, she said in a press release.
Because of this rule, more immigrants would turn down benefits and aid, which is known as a chill effect, said Victoria Crouse, a state policy fellow at the league.
If fewer people are receiving benefits, then the state would receive less federal funding, said Bob Wheaton, public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The league estimates the losses of federal funds to Michigan at between $92 million and $214 million annually. The potential ripple effects from decreased spending at grocery stores, doctor’s offices or hospitals, could cost Michigan’s economy between $175 million and $409 million annually. Also, that could cause Michigan’s economy to lose between 1,193 and 2,784 jobs every year.
Another challenge that immigrants will face under the proposal is the new requirement that they earn 125 percent of the federal poverty level. This means that a family of four would have to earn $31,375 annually, according to the league.
This would put a significant financial burden on immigrants, said Diego Bonesatti, director of legal services for Michigan United, a coalition of labor and faith organizations, based in Detroit. That would lead to a buy-your-way-in immigration system, he said.
Bonesatti said that although this federal rule would not take place for at least four months, because the federal government has to review all individual comments made on its website, it’s still a cause for concern.
This rule is being made on the Federal Register, which means that it is not being voted on by Congress or by the public, although they can leave comments on the website.
By constantly attempting to change how immigration works at a federal level, the Trump Administration is creating an atmosphere of fear, chaos and apprehension among the immigrant population, he said.
“When constant changes like this are being bounced around, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” Bonesatti said. “This leads to people holding back from applying for aid or citizenship because they don’t know what’s going on.”
Crouse said a coalition of statewide organizations called the Protecting Immigrant Families Michigan Campaign is working to educate Michiganders about the proposed rule. After educating citizens, they want to mobilize people to leave a comment opposing the proposal in the Federal Register.
The chilling effect is the greatest concern of the Protecting Immigrant Families Michigan Campaign, said Susan Reed, the managing attorney for the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, a legal resource center for immigrants based in Kalamazoo.
Crouse said that if the rule is finalized, the campaign plans to continue to educate anyone who would be affected by it and to offer legal advice and resources. Because of the complexity of the rule, people that wouldn’t be affected by it may still drop their benefits, out of fear.
“We know there are immigrants in every county, so this issue cuts across different communities,” Crouse said. “This is a priority for us because this could affect over 114,000 children in Michigan.”
The chilling effect would cause federal programs, such as food stamps or Medicaid, to receive less funding, because there would be less enrollees. This would affect people using government assistance, whose aid would be reduced as the assistance funding is slashed, Crouse said.
Individualized public comments are crucial to prevent this rule from happening, advocates said.
“The administration is looking at comments by content, not by individuality,” Bonesatti said. “If 20,000 people leave boilerplate comments, the administration is going to look at that as one comment.”
On the other hand, if medical professionals, human services personnel and community members who know immigrants leave comments from their personal perspectives, it could have a tremendous effect on the administration’s decision, Crouse said.
The comment section ends Dec. 10. Comments can be left on the Federal Register’s website, under the article titled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds.” The website is: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/10/10/2018-21106/inadmissibility-on-public-charge-grounds.