Between the time I write this article and each one of you reads it, the information about Coronavirus will be different and its impact greater. Many of you may think what does the Coronavirus have to do with immigration law and immigrants? Many of you will not care about immigrants’ rights unless it directly hits home and I get that too. As the voice of many immigrants who do not have one, I am simply here to explain how this virus and the way it is handled by the U.S. government has an effect on all of us in the U.S.
On February 24, 2020, more than one month after the first U.S. coronavirus case was discovered (January 20th), the “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds Final Rule” went into effect. This rule, which was blocked in the federal courts, was put into effect when the U.S. Supreme Court quashed lower-court injunctions. The rule, whose new definition of public charge creates a confusing road map of different government-sourced assistance which is OK and not OK for immigrants to take, includes several which involve health and also lists health as the main factor to be considered is whether to deny immigration benefits to immigrants inside and outside the U.S.
Of all the different kinds of government assistance which can trigger the finding of inadmissibility for immigrants applying for visas outside the U.S. or ineligibility to change or adjust status (thus potentially falling out of legal status), several touches on health care, including Medicaid on a federal level and on state levels as well. In the case of one of the most acutely affected states, Washington, the rule specifically mentions the following:
WA Aged, Blind or Disabled Cash Assistance Program; WA Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants; WA Consolidated Emergency Assistance Program; WA Pregnant Women Assistance; WA Diversion Cash Assistance; and WA State Supplemental Payment.
Ever since the first drafts of this rule were leaked, immigrants nationwide have been pulling out of health-related government programs, including people with the need for long-term care, life-preserving medications, and pregnant women. It’s important to note that many of these immigrants are related to U.S. citizens and so this does not affect immigrants only.
So now what happens with the Coronavirus spreading? Immigrants in the U.S. who may have the virus may avoid being tested since tests might be provided by government programs because accessing those programs could make them ineligible to extend their legal status or adjust to permanent resident status, which could put them at risk of falling out of status and then becoming deportable. So if you agree with the Trump Administration that immigrants should have access to public benefits, what about the fact that each immigrant who does not get tested and does have the virus can spread it to other people, including Americans, and how that affects entire communities?
What about the immigrants who are in deportation hearings? Right now there are over one million cases in U.S. immigration courts that have yet to be completed, an unprecedented backlog which has led attorneys general from 17 states to petition to have the courts find a way to deal with this. One day closing the courts means that the backlog gets worse, and the deportations don’t happen, but since there is no time to test all the immigrants who have their day in court, judges are asking for a remedy to protect them, i.e. doing the cases with respondents by telephone instead of in person.
The Public Charge Rule discourages immigrants in the U.S. to NOT use government assistance of any kind, including health-related aid. Since the rule was written pre-Coronavirus, there is no guidance as to whether government-provided testing will be counted against immigrants in the future or not, discouraging many from being tested, and putting their surrounding communities, including many U.S. citizens, at greater risk.
Given the paramount importance of protecting the health of U.S. citizens, the Public Charge Rule should be suspended until the Coronavirus problem is fixed.