Court Blocks Trump's Changes to Immigration Rule That Created Fear of Accepting Free School Lunch

Parent Magda Vargas attended Speak UP’s Peace Walk Saturday to call for an end to hostility against immigrant families.

Parent Magda Vargas attended Speak UP’s Peace Walk Saturday to call for an end to hostility against immigrant families.

A Court on Tuesday blocked proposed Trump administration changes that would have prevented more immigrants who use social services from seeking permanent residence in the United States. Fear of Trump’s “public charge” rule changes had made some immigrant families wary of using public school services such as free school lunch.

California is one of nine states fighting this policy in federal court that won an injunction stopping proposed changes that would have denied green cards to immigrants using social services such as CalFresh/SNAP food stamps, Medicaid health programs or public housing assistance.

 The changes had been set to take effect on Oct. 15. Even though school services used by children of immigrants would not have changed a parent’s status, uncertainty was affecting parent behavior in Los Angeles and across the country.

Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the nation serving one the most diverse student populations, applauded the court ruling to stop those changes. In the district, roughly one in four is undocumented or has a parent who is undocumented.

 “More than 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified students are living in poverty, and many of them rely on the food and housing assistance, medical treatment, and other public services that the government provides,” said Board Member Nick Melvoin (BD4). “This ruling was a victory, and we will continue to fight for our students and families by opposing this unconscionable rule change.”

 LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner had called the rule changes, “detrimental to the health and well-being of our students and their families, which in turn will have a major impact on student achievement and learning.

“This court ruling is critical to parents in our communities who were facing the loss of essential benefits – including nutrition, health or housing programs – for their children and families,” Beutner said in a news release Tuesday.  

 “Many parents in my community don’t even feel it is safe to take their kids to school,” said Magda Vargas, an LAUSD parent of two who joined Speak UP’s Peace Walk last month in Maywood to call for an end to hostility against immigrant families. “I am part of this movement because as parents we want to feel safe... We’re experiencing a lot of fears. We want other parents to feel that we’re together on this.”

 Immigration experts and researchers agree that the proposed federal rule changes would have a chilling effect on the willingness of many immigrants to access healthcare and other social services they’re legally entitled to – even among those who are not trying to legalize their status and become permanent residents.

“In a climate of widespread confusion, fearful immigrants, including those that have mixed [immigration status] families, have dropped or pulled themselves and their children – sometimes U.S. citizens – from benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps with real-life consequences,” said Michelle Levander, director of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, which hosted a recent press call on the issue.

“No family, no child, should go hungry out of fear of government policies that are targeting our most at-risk communities,” said LAUSD School Board President Richard Vladovic (BD7).

Parents were also likely to deny their children critical services offered by public schools if the rule were to go into effect, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center in August.

More than 9% of survey respondents said they were less likely to apply for free and reduced school meals for their children, and more than 12% of them with children in K-12 public schools said they would be less likely to request free immunizations for their kids.

 “There was a very large group of respondents whose children are U.S. citizens so when we think about the potential implications of this rule, that expands beyond the individual immigrant,” said Tom Wong, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center, a social science research center at UC San Diego. “We’re talking about children who may potentially go hungry in school because parents fear that even a program that is not articulated in the public charge program may put them potentially at risk of one day adjusting their immigration status.” 

Immigration officials can deny a person’s petition to become a legal permanent resident (green card holder) if they think the person is likely to become a “public charge,” meaning the person is dependent on government benefits such as cash assistance or Social Security supplemental income for 12 months or longer.

 The proposed changes intended to add more social services to the list of those labeling someone a public charge, including food stamps (called Calfresh in California), rental assistance (called section 8 housing vouchers) or Medicaid (called Medi-Cal in California).

“It redefines and greatly limits who should gain permanent residence immigration status in America,” Levander said.  

The rules do not apply to anyone seeking U.S. citizenship who is already a permanent resident or has been approved to become one. Even so, Levander estimated that the federal rule’s “chilling effect” will impact about 2 million Californians, not just the nearly 400,000 seeking a green card.

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and works support for The Center for Law and Social Policy, wants to reassure parents that getting their kids the services they need poses no threat to their immigration status.   

“Although this is a terrible rule in many, many ways, Medicaid for children is not counted,” she said. “If your kids get Medicaid, this new rule won’t harm them.”  

Likewise, “public education doesn’t count, school meals don’t count,” she said.

 In fact, no services that kids receive will affect the prospects of their parents.

 Lower-Basch encouraged immigrant families to visit the Protecting Immigrant Families website, developed by CLASP in partnership with the National Immigration Law Center, for detailed information on the ‘public charge’ rule and other resources. The California Immigrant Policy Center’s website also offers information for California immigrant families.