Eduardo Caleró and his family sit at the door of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Minneapolis on Saturday, March 7, 2019. Caleró was worried that his children’s enrollment in Medical Assistance would jeopardize his future green card application. Credit: Dymanh Chhoun | Sahan Journal

Enrollment in public aid programs has been shrinking in Minnesota — with immigrants leading the exit.

Data show drops in the past two years in the number of people using Medical Assistance, the state’s Medicaid program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Medical Assistance rolls across Minnesota are down by more than 60,000 people since December 2017 — including some 25,000 non-U.S. citizens, according to state figures obtained by Sahan Journal. Non-citizens made up about 7 percent of all the program’s enrollees during that period yet accounted for nearly 40 percent of that enrollment drop.

The drop came after non-citizen enrollment in Medical Assistance actually increased by more than 16,000 people between 2015 and 2017. 

The reasons for the exodus aren’t clear. Observers say it’s possible people simply may not need the aid as their economic fortunes improve. 

Immigration advocates, though, also point to the Trump administration’s three-year effort to expand “public charge” rules that can deny green cards and certain visas to immigrants deemed overly reliant on government benefits. News of the Trump administration’s plans to expand the rule first hit headlines in early 2017.

While the public charge expansion took effect last month, the yearslong threat had been discouraging some eligible immigrants from applying for public aid for fear it would jeopardize their immigration status. The data suggest public charge could also be leading them to take themselves or their families off the rolls. 

“I know it’s happening,” said Anne Quincy, a supervising attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, a nonprofit providing legal help to low-income people. “I’ve spoken with people who say, ‘Trump got elected. I’ve heard such bad things. I took my kids off.’” 

But Quincy and other observers emphasized that factors beyond the public charge rules could also be playing a role in the enrollment drop. That includes a relatively good economy that may be pushing wages above the aid programs’ eligibility thresholds.

Refugee numbers down

The food aid program, known as SNAP, saw a 3 percent enrollment drop overall between 2017 and 2018, the most recent data available, compared to a 6 percent enrollment drop for non-citizens. 

Sarah Berg, a spokesperson with the Minnesota Department of Human Services, cautioned against attributing the overall trend to a chilling effect from the effort to expand the public charge rules. While the department has heard anecdotal reports from some counties, officials don’t collect any data on that and so can’t confirm, she said.

The state’s also seen a decline in new refugees, which may also be tamping down enrollment. 

In Minnesota, the number of new refugees dropped from more than 3,000 in 2016 to fewer than 1,000 in 2018, a product of Trump administration policies to limit refugee resettlement in the United States.

Refugees often come to the U.S. without many resources and are often eligible for programs like SNAP and Medicaid when they arrive. Research suggests that over time, as refugees gain education and employment and no longer need to rely on public aid, they pay more in taxes overall than they receive from public benefits. 

Hennepin County, where Minnesota’s immigrant population is largest, saw slightly higher dropout rates for public health care programs and federal food aid enrollment than the statewide total over the same period — 10 percent and 4 percent, respectively. The county did not break down these numbers by citizenship status for this period. 

Outside the Twin Cities, some smaller Minnesota counties with substantial immigrant and refugee populations saw steeper overall drops in public benefits enrollment compared to statewide and metro numbers.

In west-central Minnesota, Kandiyohi County, which is home to Willmar, saw the number of people enrolled in Medical Assistance, MinnesotaCare and tax credits to pay for private insurance drop by more than 5,000 people between December 2017 and January 2020, or 32 percent. SNAP enrollment for that period also dropped by around 500 people, or 11 percent. 

Todd County, home to Long Prairie in central Minnesota, saw more modest declines in Medical Assistance, with a high of 6,100 enrolled in 2017 and a low of 5,400 as of this year—an 11 percent drop. Nearly 1,500 people were enrolled in SNAP in 2017, which dropped to roughly 1,200 this year, a 17 percent decline.

‘I will apply’

Though enrollment has dropped in public aid programs over the years, there are indications of some rebounds in the rolls.

Kandiyohi County’s SNAP enrollees, for example, grew by more than 600 people between May 2019 and this January. Hispanic enrollment in public health care programs in Hennepin County dropped by around 5,000 people between fall 2018 and spring 2019, but most of it recovered by the following summer. 

Quincy last year began co-hosting forums about public charge at schools, community centers and churches. She said most people who attend them and ask her questions are seeking reassurance that their enrollment in government programs won’t hurt their immigration status.

Such was the case for Eduardo Caleró, who attended a forum Quincy co-hosted recently at Church of the Incarnation in south Minneapolis. 

Caleró came undocumented to Minnesota from Mexico in 2001. In the ensuing years, he and his wife built a family here, having six children. Their children have received health insurance through Medical Assistance for years.

Last year, one of Caleró’s sons joined the U.S. Army Reserve, which qualified Caleró and his wife for “parole in place” status, which opens a path to citizenship for parents who are unauthorized immigrants but have children serving in the military. Caleró and his wife received the designation in December. 

“Before then, I didn’t have status,” he said. “In a year and a half, I can apply for a green card.” 

Caleró had concerns that his future green card application was in jeopardy because his children receive health insurance. Quincy told Caleró that wasn’t the case, and he has no plans to take his kids off of Medical Assistance. 

Now that he has legal status, Caleró is also considering health insurance for himself, which he’s never had before in his nearly 20 years living in the U.S. “At some point,” he said, “I will apply.”

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...