Great Unknown

Ana Ventura Phares and her staff at Catholic Charities this year have counseled numerous clients nervous about losing immigration status under public charge.

When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced exactly one year ago it was considering a plan to enforce and expand a long-standing rule on the books known as “public charge” for evaluating certain immigrants seeking a path to citizenship, fear spread through the Latino community. The proposal – to exclude some immigrants based on whether they might use public benefits in the future – triggered a panic that led to some people pulling out of benefit programs, whether or not the policy change even applied to them.

Worse, some parents pulled their children – including U.S.-born children – out of programs like Medi-Cal, the supplemental food program CalFresh and others, based on nothing more than media reports before the rule was set to take effect, according to immigrant advocates. (The rule change is scheduled to start Oct. 15, but lawsuits could mean delays, or block it entirely.) Nevertheless, misconceptions abounded.

“People got fearful,” says Ana Ventura Phares, executive director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Monterey. Clients flowed into the nonprofit’s offices reporting they had pulled themselves or their children out of programs, worried a list of benefits recipients might be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Exactly how many people in Monterey County quit benefits in the past year is unknown. Monterey County residents enrolled in Medi-Cal through Central California Alliance for Health, the region’s Medi-Cal provider, dropped by around 7,700 members since September 2018, before the proposed rule change was announced. Last year, membership was approximately 157,000 in the county. Last month, membership was 149,300.

The frustrating part for advocates is that the rule doesn’t apply to many immigrants, yet children are being removed from programs anyway. Public charge does apply to those seeking a visa or a green card through a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family member, among others, but there’s a long list of immigrants to whom it does not apply. Benefits received by legal family members are not considered, and exemptions under the new rule for Medi-Cal include emergency situations, youth under 21, pregnant applicants and those who have given birth within 60 days.

Catholic Charities and other nonprofits have been giving presentations around the county to educate people about what exactly the proposed rule change could mean, who it impacts and who it doesn’t.

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“The most important thing for people to know is that they should not rush to make a decision,” Phares says. She suggests people seek out advice from immigration lawyers or from those trained by the Department of Justice, like staff members of Catholic Charities and other groups.

(A comprehensive resource for information about public charge is available from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center:) 

“If they are eligible, their children should stay on those programs so they can pay their rent, provide food and be healthy in our community,” Phares says.

Editor's Note: The print version of this story incorrectly reported that the number of Alliance members that dropped in the past year represented all three service areas of Monterey, Santa Cruz and Merced counties. The numbers reflect Monterey County only.

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