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Immigrants worry public assistance could get them deported

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio
Veronica and Fernando outside their home in Detroit.

Here’s a question some doctors and attorneys are getting: if you’re an immigrant – even a legal one – could you get deported for using food stamps? What about Medicaid? 

There's a lot of fear among immigrants right now that getting public assistance could make them a target.

Take the calls Dr. Eric Bouwens started getting a few weeks ago at the Clinica Santa Maria in Grand Rapids. 

“In the past the week, we’ve had a number of people call us, in a big hurry to get off of their emergency Medicaid or WIC program," he says, referring to the food assistance program for low-income pregnant moms and their babies. “Because they’re concerned that that’s going to trigger them for being sought out for deportation.”

Here’s why.

First, the Washington Post published a draft executive orderthat apparently leaked from the White House, saying you can be removed from the U.S. if you get “public benefits … on the basis of … financial need.”

Then, on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a new memo saying it’s now a priority to deport, aliens who … have abused any program related to receipt of public benefits."

Confused? Join the club.

When food stamps feel like a risk, is it worth having snacks for the kids? 

In Detroit, Veronica told her husband whether they should get off food stamps, just in case.

“But then we’re going to have more lack of things for the kids," she says, sitting on their couch one morning last week. "And not so much, you know, snacks and stuff like that.”

Veronica lives here in Detroit legally. She’s got a green card. Her four kids were born here in the U.S., so they’re citizens. But her husband Fernando is undocumented. They say he’s not receiving any public benefits, but ask that we just use their first names.

Veronica says it feels like a calculated risk just to take the kids to the doctor, since they’re covered under Medicaid. But so far it’s a risk they’re willing to take, she says, since their oldest son has ADHD and their older daughter was diagnosed with PTSD. 

“I feel like it's helping," Veronica says. "She has been hospitalized twice for mental health services for a crisis. So, if we didn’t have that, she wouldn’t have that time to process what was going on with her.”

Credit Kate Wells
Fernando and Veronica in their Detroit home.

Another woman in Detroit, who doesn’t want us to use her name, told her doctor she wanted to get off WIC because she heard on social media that her kids would have to pay it back someday.

"Because now, we're enjoying the benefits," she said through an interpreter. "What I don’t want is for my daughter to pay the consequences on our behalf.”

Ruby Robinson says his clients are calling him about these fears all the time. He's a supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, and it's frustrating when he doesn't have much clarity to give them, he says. 

“You know, it’s just another way to pressure non-citizens to depart or leave the United States," Robinson says of the memo and leaked draft order. "Making life so difficult or untenable here, that they don’t want to stay.”

So why are these memos and leaks talking about public benefits? 

As it is, the only way you can legally get food stamps or Medicaid is if you’ve got a green card for five years, or you’re a refugee. But you can get something referred to as "emergency Medcaid" for an urgent, life-saving procedure even if you're undocumented. And pregnant women are eligible for WIC regardless of their immigration status, the idea being that they're carrying babies who will likely be born in the U.S. as citizens. 

We called up Immigration and Customs Enforcement and asked about the impetus behind the changes, and whether there is public assistance fraud among undocumented immigrants. A spokesperson said he'd look into it, and recommended we call told us the federal food stamps program. Their spokesperson told us that they don't even keep that kind of data – fraud, when it comes to food stamps, usually refers to people selling food stamps for cash.  

Meanwhile, Fernando, Veronica’s undocumented husband, is so anxious he’s stopped leaving the house except to go to work.

The other day, he says, their four-year-old daughter tried to make a joke. 

“She tried to scare me. And she said, ‘Donald Trump is behind you!’ And I thought wow, she thinks Donald Trump is a monster. I just tell her, ‘No, no, you’re with me, you’re safe. I’m here. Don’t worry about that monster, you know?’" He sighs, and shake his head.  "Oh, god.”

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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