When Le Wang emigrated from China six years ago to start a new life in the Twin Cities, the business analyst dreamed of one day bringing his mother to join him.
But now he worries he must give up the dream because of a proposal by the Trump administration cracking down on immigrants who are deemed likely to use government benefits.
“This could tear apart my family,” said Wang, 31, as he held his newborn daughter at his home in Cottage Grove. “The uncertainties are keeping me awake at night.”
Wang’s fears are not unusual across Minnesota’s immigrant communities — even among naturalized citizens and others living here legally.
The rule, announced last weekend, would upend decades of immigration policy by denying permanent residency to immigrants who have used public assistance in the past or are expected to do so in the future.
The rule would greatly broaden a long-standing “public charge” policy, which was designed to stop immigration by people likely to become dependent on cash welfare. It would expand the rule to include a wide range of noncash benefits, including Medicaid, federal nutrition programs, housing vouchers and low-income prescription drug subsidies under Medicare. Use of any of those programs could disqualify an immigrant from obtaining a green card or extending a visa.
Administration officials say the rule would ensure that people who emigrate to the United States can support themselves and will not become a drain on public resources.
Advocates fear that, as an unintended consequence, it will prevent immigrant families from seeking preventive medical care, getting checkups for their children, finding safe housing or buying nutritious food.
The complicated, 447-page regulation represents a new front in the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive effort to curb immigration — both legal and illegal — and would affect a broad swath of the roughly 430,000 foreign-born residents of Minnesota.
Nearly 70,000 noncitizens living lawfully in Minnesota could be affected by the regulation because they use one of four major public benefits identified in the proposal, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
But the effect would extend beyond immigrants living here: It could also jeopardize the ability of thousands of people, like Wang’s mother, to move to the United States. That’s because federal immigration authorities will start to apply a rigorous new formula using a person’s age, health and financial status to predict who might become dependent on public benefits.
According to a forecast by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the rule will cause 324,438 people each year to drop or forgo public benefits for which they are eligible.
Already, advocacy groups and community health clinics across Minnesota are rushing to contain the anxiety provoked by the proposal. They are concerned that large numbers of immigrant families could drop out or not enroll in public health and nutrition programs — even if they don’t actually need to — putting people at greater risk of serious illnesses and disease outbreaks.
They point out that use of public benefits will not automatically disqualify someone from getting a green card, and that public benefits received by children who are U.S. citizens will not count against a parent’s application for a green card or visa. In addition, the regulation as it is currently written would not penalize immigrants for past use of public benefits, only use of benefits after the rule takes effect, which is not expected until early next year.
Even so, the message to many families is that any use of government benefits could jeopardize their ability to stay in the U.S. or sponsor a family member who is living abroad.
“This [proposal] has instilled widespread anxiety … among immigrant families across this state,” said Rosa Tock, a health policy analyst at the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs, a nonpartisan advisory group. “Our biggest fear is that these families will withdraw from public programs and stop going to the doctor.”
Since the regulation was announced Sept. 22, the nonprofit Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul has been inundated by so many calls that it created a hotline to answer questions and provide guidance. Attorneys at the center are encouraging people to remain in public benefit programs for which they are eligible.
“This is one of those major watershed moments that has the potential to create panic,” said John Keller, the center’s executive director.
Community health clinics in the Twin Cities that serve large numbers of low-income and immigrant patients already report seeing a effects from the regulation.
At West Side Community Health Services, a St. Paul safety net clinic that serves about 40,000 mostly low-income patients, clinic visits have declined 5 percent since June, largely because of rumors about the new rule, said Reuben Moore, the clinic’s chief executive.
“It’s having a chilling effect right now,” Moore said. “Just the noise around the rule … has the immigrant community feeling under attack. They are more afraid to put themselves in the eye of the government.”
Allen Tan, 38, a green card holder from China and a sales associate at Delta Air Lines in Minneapolis, said the rule has become a regular topic of discussion at home and among his friends in the immigrant community. Tan said he and his wife debated whether to enroll their twin sons, age 2, in Minnesota’s child care assistance program. While child care benefits are not included in the new regulation, Tan worries that any use of public benefits by a family member could jeopardize his green-card status.
“I’m really worried that some day it might count against me, and I might be forced to return to China,” Tan said.
Wang, who is a U.S. citizen and works for a Fortune 500 company, said the proposed regulation presents a “moral dilemma” for his family. Since emigrating to the United States in 2012 to pursue a business career, Wang has dreamed of being reunited with both his parents, who still live near Beijing. His desire grew more urgent after the birth of his daughter in early September, and his father recently was granted a green card.
“This is the first granddaughter of my mother,” Wang said as he rocked the baby to sleep one recent afternoon. “Every day, she speaks about how much she wants to see” the baby.
Wang worries that his mother won’t pass the government’s complicated benefits test. He fears that her age (56), and potential lack of employability (she does not speak English) could count against her application for a green card. Under the new regulation, Wang could post a minimum $10,000 bond to overcome a determination that his mother would be a public charge. But that money would be forfeited if his mother ended up using public services.
“No matter what choice I make, it will be very, very hard,” he said.
Wang said he understands the purpose of the new regulation is to promote self-sufficiency, an idea that he supports. But like many, he is concerned that its sweeping nature could deter immigrants who are skilled and eager to work.
“For years, I have paid taxes — lots of taxes — and I haven’t taken any [government] benefits,” Wang said. “At the same time, if one of my family members comes here, then they are … banned from any government benefits and live in fear. It contradicts the basic principles of fairness.”
The Trump administration is expected to formally publish the public charge rule in the Federal Register in the coming weeks, which opens a 60-day period for public comments. The final rule will probably go into effect by early next year.
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres