A Trump administration rule keeping recipients of public benefits from a green card is causing some immigrants to steer clear of needed services, according to members of Hermiston’s Hispanic Advisory Committee.

In August, the administration announced a “public charge” rule allowing it to turn away legal immigrants applying for a green card (a step to citizenship) based on factors such as a lack of English proficiency, or legally accessing benefits like Medicaid or food stamps.

A judge temporarily blocked the rule in October before it took effect. But Jose Garcia, chair of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, said he is seeing people in the immigrant community refuse any sort of free services out of fear it might count against them in the path to citizenship.

“People don’t even want to know about services — free health care, a flu shot. Everything free they are running from,” he said.

The public charge rule would only count certain federal benefits against green card applicants. Many services in Hermiston, such as free screenings at the recent Family Health Fair or free car seat checks at Umatilla Morrow County Head Start, would not be included. But Garcia said many people’s attitude is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Jonathan Lopez, another member of the Hispanic Advisory Committee, said a big part of HAC — whose meetings are always well-attended — is educating the local Hispanic community on things in the community that could help them. Now, he said, they’re having to reassure people that accessing services, such as Hermiston’s free bus system, won’t put any noncitizen’s chance at citizenship in jeopardy.

“We tell them they don’t even ask any information, you just wait at the bus stop and they pick you up,” he said.

Lopez, who is also running for county commissioner, said he expects fear will bleed into other things, causing immigrants to not participate in the U.S. Census that will determine how much federal funding local governments receive and whether Oregon will pick up an additional seat in the House of Representatives.

“Fear has driven them to miss out on opportunities,” he said.

Manuel Gutierrez, a city councilor and liaison to the Hispanic Advisory Committee, said the key to countering that fear will be education. He has been explaining to people, for example, that if their children who are U.S. citizens are on the Oregon Health Plan or getting free lunch at school, that will not be counted against their parents who are not citizens yet.

If the temporary injunction on the rule is lifted, it will only count benefits accessed after the rule was instated, not before. And many benefits, such as Head Start and student loans, won’t be included either.

“Some people get so scared and they believe what other people say and don’t check the facts,” Gutierrez said.

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Hermiston. The New York Times reported that out of everyone in New York who was legally eligible to receive food stamps through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, non-citizens were withdrawing or refusing aid at twice the rate of citizens.

The rule is the subject of multiple lawsuits and faces a long legal battle between proponents who say America should only accept immigrants who can support themselves without help, and opponents who say screening immigrants based on wealth goes against the principles America was founded upon.

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