Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners is writing to strongly oppose the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed changes to the “public charge” standard currently used to admit entry to the United States and/or grant applicants an adjustment to their immigration status. The prospective rule changes are not only problematic for those directly implicated, but the mere proposal has already catalyzed widespread fear and misinformation. In a political environment where communities brace for the worst each time they hear an immigration policy has changed, it is practical to be worried and easy to be misled.

Neighborhood Trust has spent the past 20 years providing financial counseling services and helping over 50,000 low-and moderate-income workers improve their financial health by empowering them to repair and establish credit, reduce debt and take control of their finances. As a provider of direct services, we find it unacceptable that our clients and their families have to decide between meeting their basic health or nutrition needs and pursuing their immigration options. No individual or family should feel forced to make that kind of choice or live in fear that accessing essential support services will jeopardize their legal standing.

As a Precaution, Our Clients Have Already Started Avoiding Crucial Safety Net Benefits

Consider Jillian, a 35 year old freelancer in New York City who has been stringing together odd jobs to make ends meet. She recently hit a rough patch and has been unemployed the last three months. Jillian lives alone, is 6 months pregnant, and is trying to find a more stable job. When one of our Senior Financial Counselors, Bernard, recommended that Jillian get screened for public benefits eligibility, she immediately refused, stating that she did not want to do anything that would hurt her chances of becoming a United States citizen. Jillian had not consulted with an immigration attorney to determine whether “public charge” was even relevant in her case, but nonetheless, already ruled out accessing these support programs altogether.

Erring on the side of caution is a common approach for our clients who fear the repercussions of the proposed “public charge” changes, no matter how much need they have. Another Counselor at Neighborhood Trust, Sol, met with a client, Sonia, who exemplifies this dilemma. Sonia works as a high school janitor in Houston, is a single mother of 4, and is sometimes able to earn a little extra in the summertime as a babysitter. Although Sonia would likely qualify and benefit tremendously from food stamps, she had not looked into it because she feared the government would take her children away. Sonia shared her fear with Sol and explained that she thought applying for benefits could cause the government to conclude that she did not have the economic means to take care of her own children and that she would lose custody.

The Financial & Human Cost of Misinformation and Damage to Our Community Fabric

There are an untold amount of clients who are actively avoiding unrelated services and benefits because they fear the implications for their immigration status. Even services like financial counseling, whose aim is to simply provide free financial empowerment service to entire communities, are being avoided. A Neighborhood Trust alumna, now working as an ESL teacher, faithfully and consistently promotes our free financial counseling services to her students. Nonetheless, she is always disheartened when several of her students (all of whom are here on student visas) provide the seemingly inevitable response of, “No. Free services might jeopardize my application when I try to adjust my immigration status.”

Additionally, in times of heightened fear, distress, and confusion, concerned clients frequently turn to expensive and often misinformed, lawyer’s offices (or informal pseudo-legal advice commonly referred to as “notarios”). During a recent orientation session sponsored by the Robin Hood Foundation, an attorney from the Legal Aid Society commented that a client was recently given advice by a private immigration attorney to “not attend or take advantage of any free services” until there was more information available about the new public charge standards.

Perhaps most distressing however, is the cumulative human cost of an administration consistently pursuing policies that alienate entire immigrant communities. The impact is palpable and alarming to us as direct service providers.

Jeffrey, a Financial Counselor who started working at Neighborhood Trust in the spring of 2018, recently met with a client who was seeking guidance on how to renew her tax identification number. Mary was seeking to report her income to the IRS and file taxes this coming year. As Jeffrey started to outline Mary’s options, he immediately sensed trepidation – one of the first options Jeffrey mentioned was to schedule an appointment at her local IRS office. “She started shaking,” Jeffrey said, “and then she started to cry. I tried to tell her that I understood, that she didn’t have to go with that option, and to just try to take deep breaths. I went to get her some water, but it made me feel awful that just beginning to list her options could scare her so badly. I ultimately connected her to a vetted pro-bono immigration attorney here on-site, but I hope that one day soon immigrants can feel safer in this country — this poor woman was terrified at just the thought of setting foot in any government building.”

Neighborhood Trust’s hopes are aligned with Jeffrey’s. We strongly recommend that this administration withdraw its proposal and instead advance policies that strengthen and support our communities.