BOSTON — A federal plan to require immigrants to show they won’t be a public burden would have a “chilling effect” on health care, housing and other public programs, state officials and advocates say.
The proposed changes would redefine how the government determines whether an immigrant is likely to need public assistance such as food stamps, housing and Medicaid.
Federal law has long required immigrants seeking legal permanent residency status to prove they won’t be a burden, or a “public charge.” The proposal announced by the Department of Homeland Security in September could disqualify those who use a broad range of public programs.
Immigrant advocacy groups are concerned about the potential for families forgoing basic services for fear of jeopardizing their status.
“It scares people who are legally entitled to these benefits into dropping them, which will eventually impact everyone,” said Maria Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Boston-based nonprofit Health Care For All.
She said the policy change would have a “chilling effect” where people drop out of public programs because of misinformation or fear — even if they are not directly affected.
More than 500,000 legal immigrants live in Massachusetts and could be affected by the new rule, according to state officials.
The rules, which could go into effect early next year, would set additional factors that could count against immigrants seeking permanent residency status — including earning an income of less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level, lacking English proficiency, a poor credit score, or being older than 61 or younger than 18, according to Homeland Security.
Immigrant rights groups say the changes would give too much discretion to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers to reject someone’s application for residency, or a green card, if it determines the applicant doesn’t make enough money to support a large family or lacks the resources to provide health care for a pre-existing condition.
Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most public benefits programs, but immigrant advocates worry that the rules will jeopardize their chances of getting legal residency if someone in their family who has legal status receives public benefits. That’s because the proposed expansion of the public charge rule would apply to the entire family, including children.
Gov. Charlie Baker opposes the changes, and several of his cabinet officials wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen last week, urging her to reconsider.
Mary Lou Sudders, Baker’s Health and Human Services Secretary, wrote that the proposed rule would “lead lawfully permanent residents to dis-enroll from programs that support health, nutrition and housing stability for low-income families.”
“Experience shows that many immigrants legally entitled to these supports will likely decline to participate, even if they do not fall within the scope of the proposed rule,” Sudders wrote. “These individual immigrants and their families will be directly harmed by the proposed rule, but ultimately the negative effects will be felt by the state as a whole.”
Attorney General Maura Healey has also weighed in, joining a group of 23 state attorneys general who wrote to federal officials Monday to oppose the recommended changes, saying they are “destabilizing, discriminatory and will cause harm to immigrant populations and to the states.”
Monday marked the deadline to file public comments on the proposed changes. Nearly 200,000 individuals, government officials and groups did so.
The Blue Cross/Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts estimates the rule could result in a decline of enrollment in MassHealth and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“Anecdotal reports suggest that immigrants and the native-born children of immigrants may already be declining preventive care like flu shots, which can have a negative effect on the health of the community at-large by spreading disease,” the foundation said in a report.
Supporters of the proposal, including the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, say the public charge rule dates to the early 1880s and is meant to deter immigrants who are likely to become dependent on the government.
About 63 percent of households led by noncitizens use at least one welfare program, while the rate for native-born American households is just 35 percent, according to the center.
“Welfare dependency is very high among immigrants relative to Americans, and that’s because they tend to be less educated and work in lower-paying jobs,” said Jessica Vaughn, a research director at the center. “We should be admitting immigrants who are going to be self-sufficient, not those who are going to become a burden on the government.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites.
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