Local governments need to join the fight against Trump’s cruel ‘public charge’ rule

By Dennis Herrera and Jill Habig
[Originally published in The Sacramento Bee, Nov. 14, 2019]

One hundred fifty years ago, America’s first transcontinental railroad was completed as Leland Stanford ceremoniously tapped the gold last spike and the railroad opened for through traffic between Sacramento and Omaha. The railway connected the west to the rest of the United States and spurred economic growth across the country.

This engineering and economic marvel would not have been possible without the tireless work of thousands of Chinese migrant laborers. Today, immigrants and their families continue to contribute to the vibrancy of every American community. One in four Americans were either born abroad or have at least one immigrant parent.

Yet President Donald Trump’s administration continues its attempts to redefine who is American, and who is eligible to become a U.S. citizen. The Administration’s public charge rule establishes new criteria that unlawfully forces residents to choose between support for their families and a path to citizenship.

The rule creates negative immigration consequences for residents who use even small amounts of benefits to help support their families. There are currently several lawsuits challenging that rule. In October, three federal judges blocked the rule from taking effect for now.

One of those cases is led by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office and Santa Clara County Counsel’s Office on behalf of municipalities. We are supported by 29 local governments from Texas to the American heartland, organized by Public Rights Project. Eleven California localities, including Sacramento, have joined the coalition.

Here’s why local governments are taking up this fight – and winning.

Each locality in our coalition provides lifesaving health services, housing and food assistance. The Trump Administration seeks to undermine our communities by wielding the safety net as a weapon against immigrant families. By law, the United States may deny noncitizens either admission to, or permanent residency in, our country. But the “public charge” rule has historically applied only to individuals who receive significant public cash assistance or who are institutionalized.

Now the administration has attempted to redefine the rule to include even minor use of Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance programs. Merely applying to the safety net now puts an immigrant’s path to citizenship at risk. That is antithetical to the American dream.

Local governments have a public duty to protect and provide for residents. In California, state law requires counties to serve as the health care provider of last resort for its residents. Every county in the United States has children at risk of hunger sitting in their classrooms. But up to 2.7 million U.S. children nationwide may lose access to food stamps as a result of the public charge rule. By cutting families from federal assistance, the rule has forced localities across the country to divert resources to fill this gap.

The new rule also threatens to reverse our hard-earned progress on access to health care. Rates of uncompensated care and emergency room admissions in publicly-owned hospital systems have dropped in the states that expanded Medicaid eligibility as millions have enrolled. Every $1 invested in public health is estimated to generate up to $88 of benefits to society. But, already, public hospitals from San Francisco to Los Angeles to Houston are fielding requests from residents to withdraw from health benefits.

Perhaps most cruelly, these restrictions force families to choose between having a roof over their heads and keeping their families together.

Working at the federal minimum wage, American families would have to work 127 hours a week, or nearly three full-time jobs, to afford an average two-bedroom apartment. Stable housing boosts education outcomes and lifelong earnings for children.

In San Francisco, more than 80,000 people live in families in which at least one person receives a public benefit. In Santa Clara County, the figure is more than 117,000 people. Families using these benefits should not make decisions out of fear.

The administration dismisses localities’ concerns that the rule will chill the application of refugees, children and pregnant women to public benefits. But this presumption flies in the face of their efforts to foster an atmosphere of fear regardless of legal status. The Trump administration has denied passports to Latinx Americans born near the border. The president has repeatedly questioned whether the U.S. Constitution confers citizenship to every person born in the United States (it does).

It is critical for local governments across the country to send a very different message. In this climate of fear, misinformation and distrust, it’s important for governments to speak truth and to faithfully represent the interests of our residents. The truth is that immigrants and their families are core members of our local communities, and we want and need them to stay.

Our immigrant neighbors in San Francisco work in the tech sector to foster innovation. Nationwide, our immigrant neighbors grow the food we eat, serve as doctors and home health workers to those of us in need, and create businesses that employ eight million people. And immigrants are still building the roads and infrastructure that connect every state in the union.

We call on local governments to join our coalition and reject the cruelty perpetrated by the Trump administration against our neighbors.

Jill Habig is the Founder and President of Public Rights Project.
Dennis Herrera is the City Attorney of San Francisco.