COMMENTARY: How Students and Schools Suffer Under the Public Charge Rule

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By Amalia Chamorro, Associate Director of Education Policy at UnidosUS

As if families didn’t have enough struggles ensuring their children access to a high-quality, safe, and supportive public education, the Trump administration’s new public charge rule could make it that much harder—for them and for schools.

The rule, which goes into effect in October, makes accessing public benefits, such as Medicaid or SNAP (foods stamps), part of the vetting criteria immigration officials will use to determine who qualifies for a green card or extensions to certain visa classes. Civil rights groups like UnidosUS have always known these types of policies are meant to inflict fear in immigrant families, prompting them to dis-enroll from safety net programs for low-income families. It’s been two years since the Trump administration expanded its discussions of the public charge rule. In that time, 2017-2018 American Public Health Association data has shown that the number of children enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP dropped by more than 800,000 (2%),and eligible food stamp enrollments have seen at least a 10% drop.

So how does this affect the school system? Students can’t focus on learning if they’re hungry, sick, and stressed. Even if programs like the federal Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and free and reduced lunch are exempt from the public charge rule, the message the Trump administration is sending to parents is that if they enroll in a safety net program, they’re putting their future immigration status at risk. No parent should have to choose between keeping their families together or putting food on the table. And as it stands, Feeding America reports that one in six children in this country come to class unsure of where they’ll get their next meal.

Without access to a health program and doctor, sick children will stay sick longer, missing out on more school. Chronic absenteeism—missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, excused or unexcused—is likely to increase and put children even further behind in their education trajectory, while undermining their health and well-being. What does this say about America’s values when it comes to our most vulnerable kids?

Schools will also take a financial hit. The largest federally funded education program (Title I) provides local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards. Schools rely on free and reduced lunch enrollment counts for Title I federal funds, so if parents disenroll their children from this program, it’s not hard to do the math: schools will experience a drop in the amount of Title I funds they receive.

During the 2019 UnidosUS Annual Conference earlier this month in San Diego, I was introduced to an undocumented mother and her U.S.-born son who has special needs. She told me the public charge rule made her fearful of enrolling in benefits, but she was willing to take a risk to get him the support and services he needs to thrive. I gave her a big hug and told her what a superhero she was to do right by her son. This mother is an example of why our advocacy matters and how the harmful and inhumane policies of this administration affect real people every day, and why we at UnidosUS will continue to intensify our efforts to support immigrant families and defend access to safety net programs for the most vulnerable in our community.

Read our full analysis of the public charge rule.

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