Lourdes Juarez has lived in North Carolina since 2000, working part-time to help children with disabilities improve their motor skills. Originally from Mexico, she is now a lawful permanent resident of the United States with plans to apply for citizenship.
After bouts of pancreatic and liver cancer left her struggling with medical debt, she learned that she qualified for Medicaid, the government health program for low-income people. But she had a nagging concern that accepting government benefits would affect her chances of gaining citizenship. She had heard rumors to that effect among her friends and in the news.
Juarez’s fear reflects the growing sense among immigrants that they should avoid public programs, which also include food stamps and certain housing programs, in case they count against their ability to stay in the country permanently. In December, Juarez called the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, which reassured her that her citizenship would not be affected if she enrolled in Medicaid. Only then did Jaurez relax and sign up. “I’m now more at ease, but there are other people who are confused and need true information,” she told me through an interpreter.
In October, Donald Trump’s administration released a proposed rule that, if finalized, would affect a part of immigration policy known as “public charge.” From the founding of the country, several American states expelled immigrants deemed too poor or otherwise “undesirable.” The U.S. government formally codified the practice in the form of the Immigration Act of 1882. The term public charge has, in past decades, been applied loosely, as Public Radio International has reported. In 1911, for example, a 15-year-old Italian immigrant was turned back at Ellis Island because his genitals were too small. “Persons so affected are liable, owing to inability to satisfactorily perform sexual congress, to become addicted to unnatural practices,” a public-health officer wrote at the time.