City Commissioners Alleviate Immigrant Fears Of Applying For City Services


Several of the city’s top administrators met with reporters this week to spread the word that immigrants can freely continue applying for benefits without the fear of retribution from the U.S. government.  

Their announcement comes after Federal District Courts in New York, California and Washington issued temporary injunctions against the Trump Administration’s proposed Public Charge Law rule change that would have blocked a path towards citizenship from undocumented peoples receiving public benefits. The law was set to go into affect this week. 

Under current law, immigrants applying for entry into the United States or for lawful permanent residency can be denied and labeled a “public charge” for participating or being seen as likely to participate in various federal, state or local cash assistance programs, or for receiving long term institutional care.

However, the Trump Administration is seeking to significantly expand the criteria for who can be labeled a “public charge” to include immigrants who participate or are seen as likely to participate in federal public benefit programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid or Section 8 housing assistance.

Immigrant advocates say they change could keep immigrants from obtaining permanent residency status (green cards) and affect those who already have green cards.

Photo by Enma Elias.

“It is long standing policy that the application for residency to the U.S. has been narrow in scope,” explained Commissioner Bitta Mostofi of the Mayors Office on Immigrant Affairs.

“We believe in people reaching their highest potential. We are not looking at a crystal ball as part of their entry. We want peoples hopes and dreams to be supported,”  she added. 

Mostofi, along with Human Resources Administration (HRA) Commissioner Steven Banks, NYC Health + Hospitals Senior Director of Legal Affairs Chris Keeley and LegalHealth Supervising Attorney Sarah Nolan participated in a panel in which they discussed the effects that the mere threat of the law had on immigrant communities citywide.

According to the HRA, between January 2017, when a draft of the proposal was first leaked, and January 2019, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) cases headed by non-citizens decreased over 15%. By contrast, SNAP cases headed by citizens decreased approximately 1%.

The drop-off rate among non-citizen headed households was therefore over 10 times higher than the rate among citizen headed households. This comes to nearly 78,000 individuals in non-citizen headed cases who have either left the caseload or decided not to enroll. Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.2 million residents of New York City live in a low-income household with at least one non-citizen member.

“The threat of the policy is set in fear – New Yorkers should not dis-enroll from benefits,” said Banks.

Keeley said he saw the change first hand with patients at hospitals saying “No thank you” to services that they needed, from check-ups to medication and treatments. 

“We don’t record immigration status. At every level we are committed to protecting the privacy of our patients,” said Keeley. 

Moving forward, the Trump Administration could choose to appeal, said Mostofi, but the city’s focus now is getting the word out to non-citizens that it is safe for them to receive these benefits. The Mayors Office has invested $30 million into legal services and $19 million to grassroots groups like the Know Your Rights Program in order to spread information and guidance to New Yorkers, she said.

The city agency officials stressed that with the upcoming 2020 census, it is important for the city to have proper data that reflects the city as a whole. In addition to informing these populations about their rights to benefits, they are additionally informing the public that there will not be a citizenship question, a thought that many feared would leave them vulnerable at the hands of the federal government.

“We are strongly committed to keeping data,” said Banks, citing the city’s successful lawsuit to not turn raw data over to the federal government received through the New York City Identification Program (IDNYC) launched by the Mayors Office in 2015 to provide legal identification to marginalized populations like homeless and undocumented communities and help them move freely through the five boroughs. 

“We are willing to suffer lawsuits and fight it,” said Banks. “We prevailed in the IDNYC lawsuit – we take seriously to safeguard data.” 

Mostofi ended the panel by quoting Judge George Daniels of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan who issued the preliminary injunction, 

“The rule is simply a new agency policy of exclusion in search of a justification – It is repugnant to the American Dream of the opportunity for prosperity and success through hard work and upward mobility.”