Immigrants’ children, including those born in the U.S. will be sicker, more hungry under new federal rule | Opinion

Sandro Laguerre, born in Haiti, celebrates after becoming a U.S. citizen during a naturalization ceremony in Miami in 2016.
Sandro Laguerre, born in Haiti, celebrates after becoming a U.S. citizen during a naturalization ceremony in Miami in 2016. Miami Herald

The Department of Homeland Security’s new “public charge” rule already is having concerning repercussions throughout South Florida’s immigrant community. Although the rule becomes effective on Oct. 15, our clients at Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center have begun to share real concerns of fear and backlash for accepting lifesaving and essential services for their children.

Marie, who has Temporary Protected Status and is the mother of three U.S.-born children, immediately disenrolled her children from lifesaving programs, including food stamps and Medicaid benefits. Marie herself is ineligible for the benefits, and the rule would not penalize her children, who are U.S. citizens. However, since Marie learned that the determination of her eligibility for permanent residency status will be left to the discretion of an officer who can liberally interpret the public charge rule, she is now terrified and intimidated from seeking the help she needs for her three girls, all under the age of 10.

This overly broad redefinition of “public charge” targets any individual determined to have accepted government assistance. The rule says that a person who receives one or more public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period may be deemed ineligible to apply for legal residency or petition to be reunified with family members living in the home country.

Simply put, the rule makes it easy for immigration officers to shut out anyone earning less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line ($64,375 for a family of four). While purportedly focusing on “controlling” immigration, this policy has an exponentially harmful impact on the lives of hardworking legal residents, and naturalized and U.S.-born citizens. As seen through our clients’ eyes, many will be choosing to secure permanent status over their families’ basic needs.

The new rule likely will result in a wide range of consequences, from food insecurity, housing insecurity, increased use of emergency rooms and increased vulnerability to fraud and scams. Here, Marie’s request for food stamps and Medicaid are temporary, a stopgap measure until she secures employment. But her fear of this new rule dooms her daughters to food insecurity and inadequate medical care.

As a front-line social-service agency, Sant La has partnered with the Haitian Lawyers Association (HLA), a local nonprofit committed to advancing the administration of justice and protecting the general welfare of the South Florida Community, to educate immigrant families about the public charge rule. Together, Sant La and HLA have created a “Public Charge — Know Your Rights” brochure in English and Creole to be distributed throughout South Florida’s Haitian community. We will conduct outreach activities in the hope of offering answers and alleviating fears for this community. Moreover, Sant La will join national efforts to litigate against the rule.

We cannot do it alone. We urge local officials and policy makers to speak out against this rule; lobby congressional representatives; and provide this community’s immigrant population with information that, we hope, will change the course of this disaster foretold. The goal for all of us is to ensure that this community’s children are not denied their most basic rights to healthcare and food security.

Gepsie M. Metellus is executive director of Sant La, Haitian Neighborhood Center. Altanese Phenulus is president of the Haitian Lawyers Association.