Brief Immigration Concerns Continued to Deter Immigrant Families with Children from Safety Net Programs in 2021, Compounding Other Enrollment Difficulties
Jennifer M. Haley, Dulce Gonzalez, Genevieve M. Kenney
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In 2018, the Trump administration proposed expanding the “public charge” rule to consider use of noncash public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, and housing assistance, in applications for green cards or temporary visas. The rule was implemented in February 2020, but it was halted in March 2021 after the Biden administration stopped defending the rule following a federal court order vacating it. Research found that even before the Trump-era public charge rule was implemented, it was associated with “chilling effects,” or avoidance of public programs among immigrant families, including among those not affected by the rule. Moreover, although the rule did not apply to citizen children in immigrant families or include children’s benefits use in their parents’ public charge determinations, immigrant families with children were even more likely to report chilling effects than those without children.

In this analysis, we build on research using the Urban Institute’s Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS), a nationally representative, internet-based survey of nonelderly adults conducted in December 2021 that assessed avoidance of public benefits among adults in immigrant families. We assess the responses of adults in families with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) who speak English or Spanish, were born outside the US (foreign-born) or live with one or more foreign-born family members, and live with children under age 19. Where relevant, we compare the experiences of adults in immigrant families with those of adults in all-US-born families. Because the WBNS was conducted in English and Spanish, it may not fully capture the experiences of adults who speak other languages. Our main findings from December 2021 are as follows:

  • Among adults in immigrant families with children who had family incomes below 400 percent of FPL, just over 3 in 10 (31.4 percent) reported avoiding noncash government benefits in the past 12 months because of one or more immigration-related concerns. Specifically, they worried benefits would disqualify them or a family member from obtaining a green card (24.4 percent), had other worries about immigration status or enforcement (18.4 percent), were not sure if they were eligible because of their or a family member’s immigration status (15.3 percent), or were asked to provide a Social Security number or other proof of citizenship or immigration status when applying for a family member (14.1 percent).
  • Avoidance of public programs due to immigration-related concerns compounded other difficulties enrolling in safety net programs and interacting with program staff.
    • More than half (51.3 percent) of adults in immigrant families with children who had family incomes below 400 percent of FPL and had applied for or participated in one or more safety net programs in the prior year reported an enrollment difficulty, including having trouble figuring out if they were eligible (37.1 percent), having trouble providing required documentation or completing paperwork (29.9 percent), and/or not getting benefits as soon as they were needed (34.9 percent).
    • Among those who had also interacted with program staff, almost half (47.8 percent) had difficulties interacting with staff, including 39.3 percent who reported never or only sometimes being treated with courtesy and respect, 37.3 percent who reported never or only sometimes getting the information or help they needed, and 17.6 percent who felt treated or judged unfairly because of their racial or ethnic background.
    • In addition, 17.3 percent of adults in immigrant families with children who had interacted with program staff were never or only sometimes able to find program information in their preferred language.
    • Adults in immigrant families with children were more likely than adults in all-US-born families with children to report problems providing required documentation or completing paperwork and feeling they were treated or judged unfairly by program staff because of their racial or ethnic background.
    • Adults in immigrant families with children were also more likely than their counterparts in families with only US-born members to report receiving help from a community organization when applying for benefits (21.5 versus 10.7 percent).
  • Though many immigrant families with children with incomes below 400 percent of FPL avoided public benefits because of immigration concerns and reported substantial barriers interacting with safety net programs, we find that immigrant families with children overall experienced higher rates of many material hardships than did all-US-born families with children.
    • Among all immigrant families with children, 28.8 percent reported food insecurity in the household, 23.2 percent reported unmet needs for medical care in the family because of costs, 18.3 percent reported problems paying utility bills, 18.7 percent reported problems paying rent or the mortgage, 14.6 percent reported problems paying family medical bills, and 7.8 percent had had their utilities suspended during the past 12 months.

In 2021, many immigrant families both with and without children continued to avoid public programs because of immigration-related concerns, despite the Trump-era public charge rule having been vacated early that year (Bernstein et al. 2022). And though the 2022 rule now in place clarifies that benefits use by family members, including children, will not affect the immigration statuses of other family members, this analysis shows that chilling effects among families with children persisted in 2021, limiting access to benefits that can address families’ basic needs. Thus, it will be important to continue to monitor the persistence of such barriers under the 2022 rule; future research will assess WBNS data during December 2022. This research also identifies other difficulties adults in immigrant families with children faced enrolling in safety net programs and interacting with their staff, which such families often experienced at higher rates than did their counterparts in all-US-born families, and the concerning material hardships reported by these families. Avoidance of public benefits due to immigration-related concerns or other barriers could result in families not being able to meet their basic needs, which could adversely affect the health, stability, and well-being of parents, their children, and their communities.

Research Areas Children and youth Families Health and health care Immigration Social safety net
Tags Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant children, families, and communities Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program  Food insecurity and hunger
Policy Centers Health Policy Center
Research Methods Data analysis Quantitative data analysis