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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Senators Call For Suspension Of Rule That Could Discourage Immigrants From Seeking Care

Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants the Trump administration to immediately suspend implementation of a new public charge rule, which makes it harder for some immigrants to get green cards if they use public benefits. This comes as public health and legal experts across the country are raising concerns about making sure documented and undocumented immigrants feel safe accessing health care as fears increase around the new coronavirus.

The Trump administration says the rule is designed to promote self-sufficiency among immigrants and will be used to determine whether an individual is likely to become a financial burden on the federal government. The scope of the rule is much narrower than many immigrants fear, affecting mostly would-be green card holders and visa applicants abroad.

But the confusion around which benefits are impacted and who may be deemed a "public charge" has already led many legal permanent residents to unenroll from benefits for themselves or their children out of fear it may impact potential citizenship applications in the future.

Wendy Parmet is a law professor at Northeastern University where she heads the Center for Health Policy and Law. She spent much of her career studying the intersection of immigration and health, and fears the confluence of the new public charge rule and the potential for community transmission of the new coronavirus could produce a perfect storm for public health professionals.

"I think the timing is potentially catastrophic," Parmet said. "I don't think we need, at this particular moment in time, a rule that's going to exacerbate the risk of a pandemic getting worse."

Parmet was one of more than 450 public health and legal experts to sign an open letter Monday addressed to Vice President Mike Pence and other federal, state and local leaders calling for a "fair and effective" response to the public health threat presented by the new coronavirus. Along with the other signatories, she said federal officials should declare health care facilities immigration enforcement-free zones in the interest of public health.

According to its website, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does consider medical facilities to be "sensitive locations" where enforcement actions are generally avoided, though decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Even still, Parmet is urging federal, state and local governments to proactively acknowledge the fears and to make concerted efforts to encourage visits to health care providers.

"What this [public charge] rule is widely expected to do is cause millions of residents of the United States to get rid of their health insurance and people who are uninsured are much less likely to seek care," she said.

In a letter addressed to the White House on Wednesday, Warren and a handful of other senators called on the administration to place a moratorium on federal immigration enforcement in and around health care facilities. The letter also calls on the Trump administration to announce the suspension of the public charge rule in the best interest of public health.

"We cannot allow the fear this ill-considered rule creates to scare families away from getting the help that they may need if they come into contact with people with COVID-19 or become ill themselves" the letter read.

Related:

Shannon Dooling Twitter Reporter
Shannon Dooling is an immigration reporter at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station.

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