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Immigration Experts Offer Tips To Demystify New Public Charge Rules

  • Lily Choi, a lawyer for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, discusses the new public charge rules at a panel on Wednesday evening. Photo by Bryan Kim.

  • Heng Lam Foong, senior policy manager for Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles' Health Access Project, discusses the public benefits programs that would be considered for a public charge test at a panel on Wednesday. Photo by Phoenix Tso.

Location

Alhambra , CA

With concerns about immigration restrictions in the air, experts sought to inform and reassure Alhambra’s diverse communities about recently announced changes in “public charge” rules during an informational meeting Wednesday at Reese Hall at Alhambra’s Civic Center Library.

Key to the public charge rule is the identification of public assistance programs that could be used to consider whether an immigrant is likely to become a dependent of the United States government.

The public charge rule is currently used to determine the eligibility of those who apply for a visa or a green card and are receiving cash assistance benefits like supplemental security income or long-term institutional care by the federal government.

Under the proposed new guidelines, due to go into effect on Oct. 15, those using certain benefits could apply for those benefits for just 12 months in a 36 month period and could be considered likely to become a public charge, said panelist Lily Choi, a lawyer for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. The programs considered would expand to those using Medi-Cal for their health insurance, and those in public housing programs like Section 8.

These rule changes have sown fear in immigrant communities since the Department of Homeland Security announced them in mid-August. There have been reports of immigrants unenrolling from benefits, which makes it harder for them to get the nutrition, housing, healthcare and other services they need.

The meeting was hosted by the City of Alhambra, the Alhambra Unified School District, the Alhambra Teachers Association and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles in conjunction with the office of Rep. Judy Chu, NLSLA and Bet Tzedek. Both organizations are legal service providers for low income individuals, including immigration law.

The new public charge rules face court challenges from several interested parties including the state of California. And while the new guidelines don’t directly impact school meal or other school programs, there is concern about the trickle-down impact that new public charge regulations may have on students.

“The impact of the guidelines is indirect but real,” said Vivien Watts, the AUSD Director of Food and Nutrition in comments after the new guidelines were announced.

In opening remarks Wednesday, Alhambra Unified School District Superintendent Denise Jaramillo said that providing equitable education also means providing for the basic needs of the district’s students, including housing and nutrition. She echoed the position of Debra Duardo, Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools, saying, “The chilling effects that will come with the new public charge regulations — they’re going to ripple throughout our community and potentially destabilize school districts, harm children, and can cause an atmosphere where fear exists and makes it difficult for our kids to access education.”

Duardo’s L.A. County Office of Education, which oversees all of L.A. County’s school districts, including Alhambra, was represented by its general counsel Vibiana Andrade at the panel. Andrade stressed that public charge does not affect a child’s right to education, which is codified in the U.S Constitution, and upheld for immigrant students in the Supreme Court’s Plyler v. Doe ruling in 1982. This includes school services.

“Sometimes we’re providing counseling for kids, sometimes we’re providing the school nutrition programs, sometimes we’re providing after school programs, specialized tutoring, IEP services and the list goes on,” she said. “And with those services that are given to kids, they can’t affect their immigration status at all.”

During the panel, Choi stressed that public benefits are only one factor in determining if public charge applies to a person’s immigration status. Immigration officials also take into account factors like age, income, and education level. There are also many exemptions of who would be subject to a public charge test, not limited to refugees or victims of violent crime, human trafficking and domestic violence, who are under U and T visas or protected by the Violence Against Women Act. There are many exceptions for the benefits subject to public charge. The public charge test would not count towards those using emergency Medi-Cal, or children or pregnant women using this insurance.

Public charge doesn’t apply to those who are undocumented without a path to permanent residency or citizenship, nor does it apply to those who are applying for citizenship. People who already have green cards are also safe from the public charge test, unless they leave the country for more than six months and then try to reenter.

Choi also said that these new rules don’t apply until Oct. 15, and encouraged people to take that time first to determine what they need to do in terms of their immigration status.

Under current rules, a child’s SSI or CalWORKs benefits would count as part of a parent’s public charge test, if those benefits comprised the family’s only source of income. Under the new rules, a child’s benefits will not count against any parent subject to the public charge test. The benefits used by adult citizen children of those applying for visas or green cards also don’t apply.

In addition to Andrade and Choi, panelists included Leisette Rodriguez, family preparedness attorney for Bet Tzedek, a free legal services organization. She urged people to consult a lawyer to know their rights on public charge and other immigration matters. “The most important thing is we continue to fight against the fear that this administration wants to place in our communities, and we fight back with all the resources we have,” she said.

Another panelist was Heng Lam Foong, the senior policy manager for AAAJ’s Health Access Project. She echoed Rodriguez in encouraging people to know which programs public charge will encompass, saying that programs like the Women, Infants and Children special supplemental nutrition program are not included, and that people can visit county health clinics that don’t require insurance if they decided to pull their enrollment in Medi-Cal after Oct. 15.

Foong reiterated that public charge would not apply to children participating in school food programs, like free and reduced lunch, and Watts of Alhambra Unified Alhambra Unified was available as a resource for questions about those programs. Lauren Jacobs, the constituent services representative for U.S. Rep Judy Chu, spoke about what the congresswoman is doing on this matter, including introducing a bill that would not allow federal funds to be applied to public charge.

Chu announced Thursday that she along with the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus joined other member of Congress in filing amicus briefs in support of lawsuits to block the public charge rule changes.

At the beginning of the evening, Alhambra Mayor Adele Andrade-Stadler welcomed the gathering and said that she and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joined the United States Conference of Mayors in signing a letter to the Trump administration urging them not to implement the new public charge rules. “We know this executive action is going to hurt individuals, families and communities, and we’re urging them to abandon the proposal,” she said.

Around 75 people attended the informational meeting including Alhambra Unified School Board President Robert L. Gin and School Board Member Wing Ho, and Anita Chu, superintendent of the Garvey School District, which feeds into the Alhambra Unified School District. ATA President Tammy Scorcia and board member Javier Gutierrez were also in attendance. Interpreters in Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, Spanish and Vietnamese were on hand, with students from Alhambra High School handing out translation headsets to those who requested them. There were also handouts materials explaining public charge and the new regulations available. They were also translated into multiple languages.

On Sept. 28, AAAJ-LA is hosting a free legal consultation on public charge and immigration and what it means to individuals. The session will run from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Alhambra High School, 101 S. 2nd Street, Alhambra, 91801. Assistance will be available in Cantonese/Mandarin, Vietnamese and Spanish. For more information, please visit the online signup form.

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