Nothing exposes the self-defeating weaknesses of our national immigration policies as much as the revised “public charge rule,” as implemented during the coronavirus pandemic.

The rule is supposed to save taxpayer money by discouraging economic migrants from accepting food or housing assistance. But advocates say it has a chilling affect on all classes of immigrants, discouraging them from seeking any help from the government, including COVID-19 testing, because they are afraid it will be used against them later.

This “cost-saving measure” will end up costing us dearly if it creates conditions in which the infection spreads, perpetuating a disease outbreak that has already killed 165,000 Americans and crippled our economy.

Immigrants have been largely forgotten during the coronavirus response. The stimulus checks that were sent out to most American families went only to immigrants who have Social Security numbers. Millions of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, who pay state and federal taxes under a Individual Taxpayer Identification Number were not eligible, even if members of their families are U.S. citizens.

This includes people who lost their jobs when states shut down most nonessential businesses, as well as people who kept going to work in agriculture, food processing, health care facilities and other essential services. These families had no less need than other families for money to help them stay safely housed during the pandemic, and they should be included in future coronavirus relief legislation, as they were included in the U.S. House of Representatives-passed HEROES Act.

The public charge rule was proposed last year and is the subject of litigation that is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The rule has been written to prevent a migrant from receiving permanent residency status, known as a “green card,” if they have received government aid, including food stamps or public housing.

It does not affect all classes of immigrants. Asylum seekers and refugees are allowed to receive services. Undocumented immigrants cannot legally apply for green cards, so they can’t be affected. But the publicity about the implementation of the rule has spread through immigrant communities, sending the message that it’s dangerous to accept anything from the government.

The rule is not supposed to apply to public health programs, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has explicitly said that it would consider neither “testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19” as part of a public-charge determination. That message is hard to hear, however, above the generally hostile rhetoric and actions that emanate from the federal government.

The threat that the rule conveys is resulting in people not knowing that they are infected, not isolating and spreading the virus to co-workers and family members. People are getting sick unnecessarily and even dying.

And the problem doesn’t end with the people who are directly affected. The virus does not respect immigration status and can easily spread from untreated immigrants to vulnerable citizens. Everyone loses if government policies allow this disease to take hold in any community.

It’s time for the federal government to develop a more rational immigration policy: Congress should include everyone affected by the coronavirus in future relief programs, regardless of their status. And the government should back off any immigration policies that interfere with public health.


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