Joaquin and Herlinda Escudeno came to a forum about public charge on Oct. 20, 2019, at at Holy Rosary Church in Minneapolis. Joaquin was concerned that his visits to a community health clinic would impact Herlinda's green card application. Credit: Guy Wagner | Sahan Journal

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MINNEAPOLIS — As a permanent United States resident, 70-year-old Joaquin Escudeno likely qualifies for Medicaid and other public health programs. But after 30 years in the U.S. and 25 in Minnesota, he’s afraid to sign up for those benefits.

His wife Herlinda’s immigration case is still open, and in the current political environment Escudeno believes that asking for the public aid he’s entitled to could damage Herlinda’s chances at a green card.

“I never applied because of the existing public charge problem,” said Escudeno, whose family can’t afford private health insurance and so rolls the dice now, uninsured.

“Public charge” is shorthand for a federal rule dating to the 1880s that lets immigration officials deny entry or citizenship to immigrants seeking green cards and certain visas if they’re deemed overly reliant on government benefits. It’s been used sparingly the past few decades. 

In August, however, the Trump administration announced it would significantly expand the scope of what constitutes a public charge to include food aid, public health insurance and housing assistance programs.

While the proposal remains tied up in court, word of the Trump administration’s plan has immigrants in Minnesota and the nation worried they or their families will face retaliation if they apply for federal public aid programs such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“On the TV in Spanish, they talk like everybody is affected by public charge,” Herlinda, speaking through an interpreter, told Sahan Journal. “We feel terrorized by this because we’re thinking it’s for us.” 

‘You should be afraid’

In announcing the broadened public charge rule, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Agency Principal Deputy Director Ken Cuccinelli made an addendum to a famous phrase about welcoming immigrants inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. 

“Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,” he told NPR

Critics call the changes discriminatory against poor immigrants and favorable to wealthy ones. Attorneys general in 20 states, including Keith Ellison in Minnesota, quickly sued after the rues were announced to prevent them from going into place.

In October, district judges in California, Washington State and Maryland halted the changes, ruling that they weren’t in line with U.S. immigration law precedent. The Justice Department is expected to appeal these decisions. 

Critics, however, say the damage has been done. The Trump administration’s rhetoric about public charge has been percolating in the news since at least the fall of 2018, effectively keeping eligible people from applying.

“This is an overt act by the government that says, ‘You should be afraid,’” said Anne Quincy, a supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid who’s been working in public benefits law for more than 30 years. “I’ve never seen so many people get off a benefit or refuse to get on a benefit out of fear.”

Not only do immigrant communities think the new rules are now in force, many who would not be subjected to them assume they are and are not seeking aid they’d otherwise qualify for because of it, according to several immigrant and public benefits advocates interviewed for this story. 

“People who are arriving from Honduras or El Salvador, they’re afraid to get medical benefits even though asylum is an exception [to public charge],” said Antonia Alvarez, an advocate with the pro-immigrant rights group Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza. 

Alvarez said she hears from people worried about whether their children using federally subsidized school lunch programs — another exemption — will subject the family to the threat of being labeled a public charge. 

When cafeteria workers at Richfield High School last month made national news for throwing away 40 hot lunches from students who had lunch debt of $15 or more, Alvarez said several parents in Richfield called her to ask whether the school’s actions were part of the public charge rule. 

To combat misinformation, Quincy and Pueblos de Lucha y Esperanza have been holding public forums about the changes in Latino-dominant churches in Minneapolis.

Similar forums sponsored by Legal Aid and La Asamblea De Derechos Civiles, another pro-immigrant rights group, have been held recently at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Waite Park, Minn., near St. Cloud.

At a forum in late October at Holy Rosary Church, a Catholic parish in the Phillips neighborhood where most masses are held in Spanish, Quincy assured Joaquin and Herlinda Escudeno that his visits to a community health clinic would not impact Herlinda’s immigration case. 

“Now, with this information, we understand there’s not a public charge affecting our case,” a reassured Joaquin explained through an interpreter. 

Still, Joaquin does not plan to apply for public health insurance as long as Herlinda’s immigration case remains open. 

He said private health insurance would cost him around $350 a week, too much for the weekly $500 he makes from his job. For now, he continues paying out of pocket for community health clinic visits.

“I think the most important thing for me is to finish the legal case for my wife,” he said.

‘Not a miracle worker’

Immigrants who have been in the U.S. as lawful permanent residents for five years or more and qualify for public insurance can receive Medical Assistance, Minnesota’s Medicaid program.

If they’ve been permanent residents for less than five years and meet the same conditions, they qualify for MinnesotaCare, the state’s subsidized program for low-income people with no access to affordable health care coverage. 

Unauthorized immigrants can still qualify for emergency Medical Assistance if they meet the conditions. None of these cases would affect a spouse’s green card application, according to Quincy. 

Maria Elena Gutierrez, an advocate with La Asamblea in St. Cloud, said she always encourages people in these situations to apply for programs like SNAP and Medical Assistance. 

“But some people just don’t want to apply because they prefer to go and pay their own,” she said.  

Quincy, Alvarez and Guttierez each said immigration attorneys sometimes add to the confusion by instructing clients not to enroll in public benefits for fear it will jeopardize their immigration status.

“Immigration law is shifting all the time,” Quincy said. “So for them to be on high alert and not wanting to say the wrong thing or give the wrong advice, it’s understandable.” 

If the public charge changes do eventually go into effect, however, Quincy stressed that the new rules can not be applied retroactively to people who enroll in programs before then. 

Lauren Schrader, an immigration attorney at Robichaud, Schroepfer & Correia in Minneapolis, said that when clients ask for her advice on whether to enroll in public benefits programs that they’re eligible for, she usually tells them it shouldn’t affect their immigration case but that there can be gray areas.

“You don’t ever want to advise someone to, ‘For sure do this, for sure do that,’” Schrader said. “You’re a lawyer, you’re not a miracle worker.”

Compounding it all is the complicated and bureaucratic nature of applying for public aid programs. 

Such is the case for Cristina, a 33-year-old who lives in Litchfield, Minn., who did not want her last name revealed because she is an unauthorized immigrant. She’s lived in for Minnesota 14 years after leaving a dangerous climate in the Guerrero State of southwest Mexico. 

Cristina has a 5-year-old son with autism who was born in the U.S. and is thus not subject to public charge rules. Last year, Cristina was encouraged to apply for Social Security Disability income for her son to cover his twice weekly specialized medical treatment for his autism. 

But her application stalled when she wasn’t able to provide caseworkers with enough pay stubs from her husband’s previous job. Cristina’s husband, who is a farmworker, had changed jobs months before she applied.

When a caseworker offered to call Cristina’s husband’s former employer to retrieve the old pay stubs, Cristina said she and her husband decided against it over fears that her husband’s former employer would not cooperate.

“He doesn’t like authorities knowing he hires undocumented immigrants,” Cristina, speaking through an interpreter, said of her husband’s former employer. 

Cristina also maintained that a caseworker accused her of lying during an interview for her Social Security Disability application when she explained how her family didn’t pay rent for one month because they were staying with a friend. 

While Cristina’s kids are insured through Medical Assistance, her husband is still afraid to apply for another program that might give the government a reason to deport them.

“He doesn’t want to give anything more to the government because he’s afraid, because they will have everything — his name, where he works, everything,” Cristina said. “He said, ‘We can live with our money, we can try to depend on the money I make.’”

Eight months have passed since she last applied for disability for her son. Cristina said she doesn’t plan to apply again. 

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...