Status Uncertain Santa Cruz agency guides immigrants through the uncertainty

By Andrea Patton

Paulina Moreno regularly encounters immigrants in need of help in her role as project director at the Community Action Board in Santa Cruz, but the mother and child who sit across from her this time are an alarming reminder of the harmful impact that is already rippling out from the Trump administration’s proposed public rules change.

The mother is there for legal advice on her asylum case. She came to Community Action Board, known familiarly as CAB, because she has been unable to reach the attorney who had been working with her. Moreno asks her how she is going about getting food and health care for her children since she and her husband are temporary migrant farm workers who follow the crop seasons. “I don’t want to get into any problems, so we don’t sign up for anything,” the mother tells her.

The son she has brought with her is visibly sick with a heart condition, but the mother, who cleans houses while she waits for her work permit to arrive in the mail,won’t sign up for benefits because she’s afraid it will jeopardize her citizenship application. “We’re just afraid,’” the mother says to Moreno. She tells Moreno that her children are U.S. citizens who qualify for services.

Moreno says CAB’s communications with the county revealed that there has already been a decline in people getting CalFresh (food stamps). “We don’t know for certain that public charge issue is correlated to a decline in numbers,” she says, “but for me it’s like no coincidence that we started hearing all of this, then all of a sudden we had an 18 percent drop in numbers.”

“These families are being forced into the shadows and not able to take care of themselves,” Moreno says. “For me, I think about the way that immigrants contribute to the everyday growth of our community, families like this mother who works in the field that right now is cleaning homes.”

The mother is worried about being a “public charge” and the complications that might arise if she is classified as one.

A public charge is currently defined in U.S. immigration law as an immigrant who is likely to depend primarily on public cash assistance or government-funded, long-term institutional care.

The rule, with roots in British colonial efforts to deter poor people from immigrating to the United States, prevents anyone who is likely to use these forms of assistance, as determined by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, from obtaining a green card or permanent legal residency.

The administration’s proposed change would expand the definition of public charge to include the use of other government assistance programs, such as health care, public housing and food stamps, making it harder for immigrants to gain citizenship while shutting them out of services that they or their family members may need. Additionally, a specified threshold of income level, English proficiency, education and age will be considered as factors in the proposed change that could make applicants ineligible.

Benefits used by family members like the mother’s son would not be a factor in determining whether she is a public charge, but Moreno says there is a lot of misinformation surrounding the issue. The rule is not retroactive, so past use of services will not influence determination of citizenship. Applicants will have 60 days to disenroll from a benefits program after the law is published.

CAB has served the immigrant community in Santa Cruz County for over 50 years. It administers several programs, including the Santa Cruz County Immigration Project, and the Rental Assistance Program, the program that will be most impacted if the new rules take effect.

During the comment period that ended Dec. 10, CAB, along with the county’s Human Services Agency and Community Bridges, sent letters in opposition of the proposed change.

In the county’s public comment letter, director of Santa Cruz Human Services Department Ellen Timberlake outlined the vital role that immigrants have played in our community throughout history.

“From the 1797 establishment of the first Spanish pueblo in Branciforte through the European influx at the time of statehood, and from early-20th century Italian fishermen through late-20th century Latino farmworkers, immigrants have always defined Santa Cruz County,” Timberlake wrote. “That continues today as immigrants are a part of every aspect of the work of the Human Services Department, from the people we serve, to the businesses and non-profits we work with, to the employees doing the work.”

The proposed change would directly impact those seeking green cards or permanent legal status, but it would also have a chilling impact on those who are part of a mixed-status family, such as those with children that are U.S. citizens. According to the most recent Public Policy Institute report, half of the children in California have at least one immigrant parent, a quarter of which are undocumented.

According to a study by UCLA, “The changes to the public charge rule could cause about 765,000 immigrants in California to disenroll from nutrition assistance and health care programs due to fears about the possible impacts the programs could have on their ability to gain status as legal permanent residents.” The change would have far reaching impact on California’s economy as well. The same study estimates that the state could lose $1.67 billion in federal funds, $2.8 billion from its economy and 17,700 jobs, of which nearly half would be in health care.

“We were talking about what that impact would be of a child going hungry and their inability to concentrate in class and the detriment that that would have for their ability to do well in school, and to apply to college,” Moreno says. “So that would impact people on every level. It’s not just about taking away food, but it’s also a detriment to their education and their well being, and their ability to just exist.”

Local service agencies like CAB and food banks will likely play a greater role in ensuring that residents have access to food and shelter. “There’s a trickling effect that impacts different service providers,” Moreno says.

“If there’s anything I could suggest to people it’s to turn to service providers in the community that are equipped to provide them with the correct information,” Moreno says. “If it’s about immigration services, they can always turn to the immigration project. That’s one of CAB’s services. We don’t charge for consultation. People can come ask a question.”

Moreno recently spoke at a Santa Cruz Board of Supervisors meeting, where she implored elected officials to speak out against targeting immigrants in this way.

“I think that our responsibility is a local responsibility,” Moreno says. “ We know that at the national level things are not going to happen, but I think locally we can look to our leaders, we can look to our representatives to really think about how they can truly be representative of everyone, their constituents, regardless of where they were born.”

Meanwhile, the administration is obliged to read all of the 210,000 public comments that poured in regarding this rule change. According to Immigrant Legal Resource Center, the timing of the publication of a final rule is uncertain, and even after publication, legal challenges could delay implementation.

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Andrea Patton

About Andrea Patton

Andrea grew up in Salinas, moved to Ohio to teach high school English and journalism, and returned to Santa Cruz where she wrote for Good Times and taught at Cabrillo College. An avid traveler, she currently resides in Seattle.