By Yadira Montoya
When I was 5, my family migrated from Mexico, to Little Village — a predominantly Mexican immigrant neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. Despite my parents working several jobs, our family’s limited income made us eligible for public benefit programs. These programs were a lifeline and provided us with access to healthy food and medical care and enabled my parents to take care of us and keep us healthy.
My experience as an immigrant and living in Little Village influenced my decision to pursue a career in health care. As a senior community engagement coordinator at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, I’m responsible for planning and implementing the Latino education and recruitment efforts for Alzheimer’s disease research. Specifically, I work with older adults, family caregivers and community organizations in Latino and immigrant communities throughout the city. Beyond my work at the RADC, I am very involved in several Rush-wide efforts to reduce health inequities on the West Side and make our institution more immigrant friendly.
In the fall of 2017, I was invited to join Rush’s Immigrant Health Working Group, an interdisciplinary group with the mission of advocating for policies at Rush that promote the health of all immigrants, including those who are undocumented. The working group helped pass a policy that outlines proper procedures with law enforcement, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity on the campus.
Today, I am sharing a part of my story because of the proposed changes to the Public Charge Rule under the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services Department.
What is the public charge?
According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, when individuals apply for lawful permanent residency in the United States (LPR, or a “green card”), the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services Department evaluates whether they have used — or are likely to use — certain public benefits that could make them a “public charge.” If so, it is a “heavily weighted negative factor” against the applicant’s request. In this proposed regulation, the government is proposing to significantly expand the list of programs that USCIS must consider when determining if an immigrant is a public charge.
For the past 20 years, an immigrant has been considered a public charge only if they are “primarily dependent” on the government, as shown through the receipt of cash assistance for income maintenance or on government-funded long-term institutional care.
This rule change would create significant disincentive for immigrants to enroll in publicly funded programs that provide basic needs, including food, housing and health care.
On a personal level, the proposed public charge changes would have been catastrophic for my family if these had been put in place decades ago when we needed the most help. As a public health practitioner, I am able to understand the negative, lasting and public health implications of eliminating access to safe housing, nutritious food and health care services for our immigrant communities at a local, state, and national level. Moreover, I view the proposed changes are contrary to Rush’s commitment to addressing social determinants and reducing health inequities in Pilsen and Little Village, communities that have a high number of immigrant families and are part of Rush’s service area.
Yadira Montoya, MS, is an outreach coordinator with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.