Ahead of public charge rule, City Council tasks schools with providing resources to immigrant families

As fear around a new federal immigration rule continues to perplex some New York City immigrant families, the city will require the education department to send home fact sheets to teach parents about their rights. 

A bill passed in the City Council Thursday, which is part of a larger package of legislation, would require the public schools to give students “educational materials” about the new federal public charge rule. A Trump administration mandate, the rule will look at whether immigrants who want to obtain a green card or certain visas rely on or, down the road, are likely to use Medicaid, SNAP food benefits, or public or subsidized housing — among other factors, such as income and health. The federal government will weigh those factors when determining if they can stay in the U.S. legally. 

The federal public charge rule goes into effect Oct. 15, though city officials said ongoing litigation could delay it. 

Since a version of that charge rule was proposed last fall, experts have said the effect it is having on immigrants is chilling — and has dissuaded some of them from enrolling in public benefits. 

“Families have approached me, have come into my office, asking whether they should unenroll from [nutrition benefits], asking whether they’re going to be able to walk into a hospital, asking whether legal services would be available if they need it,” Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, who represents Lower Manhattan and sponsored the bill, said in an interview. 

The city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs said it is already working with the education department on developing and distributing informational materials on the public charge rule, and has created a flyer outlining basic facts about it. Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said the agency will continue to provide resources for “staff, students, and families in multiple languages pursuant to the Council legislation.”

“In order to help address the fear and concern that communities may have,” Mostofi said, her office is creating materials that direct people to a free, city-funded hotline called ActionNYC — 1-800-354-0365 — where they can receive “safe immigration legal help” in 200 languages. 

Between January 2017 and January 2019, 25,000 more people than expected halted their SNAP food benefits, according to a June report from the city’s Department of Social Services and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. While that report says there is no definitive proof that the public charge rule is the cause, they could not identify another factor that would have had such an effect. 

“People are worried,” Rivera said, when they don’t necessarily have to be. She said it’s incumbent upon the city to remind parents that their children can still benefit from public programs without it counting against them in the green card process. 

Medicaid beneficiaries who are pregnant or have given birth in the past 60 days and recipients under the age of 21 will not be penalized. School-based programs, such as free and reduced-price lunch or access to school-based health centers, are also exempt.

Advocates also want certain school staffers to be versed in the new rule, and its implications, so that they can point families to relevant resources. The package of legislation passed Thursday also aims to teach immigrants about their rights, connect them with legal services, and link them to emergency food programs if they decide to disenroll from publicly funded nutrition assistance.

The point of Rivera’s bill is to reach families through their children and school — generally considered a “trusted place.” “That’s something parents are likely to do — to check their children’s backpacks and get the information,” Rivera said. 

Experts say that only a small subset of immigrants will be affected by the federal rule, especially because most people vying for a green card aren’t yet eligible for public benefits. But city officials and advocates have shared stories about families who already have their green cards, but decided to halt public assistance or not see their doctor. 

Previous versions of the public charge rule raised concerns about whether family members of green card applicants could be affected, said Mark Greenberg, a former top official at the federal Administration for Children and Families and currently a senior fellow at the Migrant Policy Institute. 

Andrea Ortiz, Education Policy Manager at the New York Immigration Coalition, said she’s heard from parents who have received incorrect information about immigration rules from their schools — information that was given to them not out of malice, but out of a misunderstanding of complicated policy. 

Giving staffers the right amount of information is something her office has been talking to the education department about since long before Rivera’s bill passed the City Council, Ortiz said. Rivera said she’s in “full support” of pushing training for school staffers in conjunction with the bill’s mandates.

“When we talk about training, we seriously mean having parent coordinators and principals to be able to know the words “public charge,” the basic definition of what it is, and how it’s changing,” Ortiz said. “Not necessarily so that they explain it, but so they refer them to the right legal services.”

 The education department did not answer a question about how staffers are trained, saying only that “all children” are welcome, and they’re working “closely” with the immigrant affairs office. 

“Under the rule that’s been published, it’s very clear that a child’s receipt of benefits will not count against a parent who is applying for a green card, and if schools can help families understand that, that would be a valuable accomplishment,” Greenberg said.

Correction: September 13, 2019: A previous version of this story stated that the new federal public charge rule exempts children and pregnant women, and their families. In fact, the rule exempts Medicaid beneficiaries who are pregnant or have given birth within the past 60 days and Medicaid recipients under the age of 21.