Ma Elena Gutiérrez stands outside St. Joseph's Catholic Church in November 2020 in Waite Park, Minn. Credit: Paul Middlestaedt | MPR News

Less than one year after President Donald Trump’s administration toughened restrictions on access to federal aid for some immigrants, advocates are confident that incoming President-elect Joe Biden will swiftly reverse course. 

But they’re not anticipating that the fear preventing some people from applying to federal aid programs like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will easily go away. 

“We know that this isn’t going to go away just from the changing of an administration,” said Ma Elena Gutiérrez, a St. Cloud-based advocate with Fe y Justicia, which advocates for Latino communities in central Minnesota. “The fear is going to lessen, but we still need to do a lot of work.” 

Last February, after more than two years of planning, the Trump administration expanded the scope of the so-called “public charge” rule. Public charge, which allows the federal government to deny entry to immigrants seeking green cards and some visas who are deemed overly reliant on public benefits, has been around since the 1880s. It was rarely used in recent times, and only applied to a handful of federal aid programs until last year. 

Public charge previously applied only to cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is commonly called welfare. Trump included health programs like Medicaid—known as Medical Assistance in Minnesota, food aid programs like SNAP, and Section 8 federal housing and rental assistance. 

Biden plans to enact a drastically different immigration agenda when he takes office next week. He campaigned on reversing Trump’s expanded rule and pledged to do so during his first 100 days in office. Earlier this week, more than 500 nonprofit and advocacy organizations signed a letter pressing Biden to make good on his promise

Among the signatories are at least two Minnesota organizations that support immigrant rights: Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. 

Anne Quincy, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid who helps clients seek public assistance, said she’s already seen encouraging moves from Biden’s transition team. Mainly, she’s referring to Biden naming Xavier Becerra for his pick as secretary of Health and Human Services, which oversees some of the public aid programs included in Trump’s expanded public charge rule.

Anne Quincy of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid speaks at a public charge forum at Holy Rosary Church in south Minneapolis in October, 2019. Credit: Guy Wagner | Sahan Journal

As California attorney general, Becerra filed one of the many federal lawsuits seeking to overturn Trump’s expanded public charge rule. 

Quincy was also quick to cite Biden’s selection of Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security as another encouraging sign. Mayorkas, who immigrated from Cuba as a child in the 1960s, oversaw the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program under the Barack Obama administration. If confirmed as secretary of DHS, he will be in charge of a department that runs the agency enforcing public charge. 

“There are things that the new administration can do, and we’re seeing signs that they’re going to do them,” Quincy said. “And we’re going to keep pushing.” 

Kathy Klos, a staff attorney at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, also welcomed the developments and expressed hope that the new administration would swiftly roll back Trump’s changes. But immigrants might be confused by the constant change, she said. Trump’s expanded public charge rule only applies to a sliver of immigrants in the U.S. Refugees and people in the U.S. on humanitarian visas are exempt, for example. People seeking care for COVID-19 are also not subject. And immigrants seeking emergency Medical Assistance are also exempt from being considered a public charge. 

But many immigrants who aren’t subject to public charge still assume they are. And advocates like Quincy have asserted that Trump’s expanded public charge rules sought to exploit people’s confusion.

That confusion sometimes extended to public benefits attorneys as well, who struggled to keep track of Trump’s changes to the rule, the multiple lawsuits that sought to strike down the new rule, and years of rhetoric from Trump on the issue. 

“I’ve had clients call me who are clearly not subject to public charge say, ‘I want to get my family off of food stamps because I’m afraid of the future,’” Klos said. “It was hard to reassure people at times, because we didn’t know the future either.” 

Confusion really reigned during the first few months of the pandemic, Gutiérrez said. From late March through June, she would be on the phone most of time from 7 a.m. to as late as 10 p.m., helping guide people in central Minnesota to COVID-19 resources. Public charge came up often, she said, as people who needed hospital care for themselves or their loved ones asked her if seeking care would affect their immigration status or lead to deportation. 

Since the summer, Gutiérrez said she saw concern over public charge drop as people started worrying about how they were going to pay the bills and rent amid layoffs and job losses in the aftermath of statewide stay-at-home orders. Since January began, she said she’s heard concerns about public charge from roughly 10 people. 

Similarly, Quincy said she received only three or four calls from people worried about public charge instead of the usual eight to 10.

Throughout it all, each time Gutiérrez answered one of these calls, she said she gave similar advice: Don’t worry too much about public charge and seek the care you need. 

“I told them their family health should go first,” she said. “Their lives should go first.”

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...