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Schools Worry Over New Trump Rule on Immigrants and Federal Benefits

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A new Trump administration rule regarding immigrants' use of federal benefits could have an indirect but significant impact on schools if it deters families from seeking assistance under certain programs, education advocates warn.

The administration has released its final rule for what's known as "public charge." This is the process by which the U.S. government determines if an immigrant seeking to become a permanent resident or extend a visa is likely to become "primarily dependent" on federal benefits—such a determination can lead the government to deny permanent residency or the visa.

Previously, benefits that were factors in this process included a limited number of programs such as Supplemental Social Security and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. However, according to the finalized rule, other benefits that can now be included in these determinations include the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program—also called "food stamps"—most forms of Medicaid, and forms of housing vouchers and rental assistance under Section 8, among others.

The administration has argued that moving public charge in this direction would remove a potential burden on the federal government's welfare programs. The Trump team released a draft of the rule last year that included those changes to public charge.

For more on public charge, go here for our story from last December.

Federal school meal programs or other K-12 benefits aren't on that list; the administration's Department of Homeland Security considered adding the Children's Health Insurance Program to that list, but ultimately did not. However, when the Trump administration was gathering feedback on public charge, school groups sounded the alarm. They said changing public charge in this way would lead significantly more immigrants, and by extension their children, to avoid participating in many benefit programs, such as CHIP, out of fear of a change in their immigration status, even if accessing those programs wouldn't impact the status of their visa or permanent residency. 

And that shift, in turn, would make many children increasingly reliant on school-based nutrition, health, and other services, putting a new stress on many public schools, the argument from those groups went. School groups have also said that the loss of federal benefits would hurt students' readiness to learn, in part because of this "chilling effect" 

On Monday, we reached out to AASA, the School Superintendents Association, for their reaction to the new rule. A portion of their response is below:

The rule, as released today, will have a devastating impact on the children that we educate and the school district budgets we manage ... Schools have a legal requirement to accept and educate all students that come through their door, regardless of their or their family's immigration status, and we expect federal laws and policies to support school districts in our efforts to educate students, not undermine those efforts. We strive to serve all students in our districts and believe this regulation would imperil the educational benefits of all students, and this rule misses that mark.

In describing feedback to its draft proposal, DHS observes in the final rule that, "Commenters involved in social services reported that they were already seeing immigrants refraining from accessing services in clinics, food banks, childcare centers, emergency shelters, and local school districts, including immigrants who are exempt from public charge inadmissibility." 

However, the department has pushed back on the idea that its rule would have a far-reaching chilling effect, noting that, "This rule does not prohibit or otherwise discourage individuals who are not subject to the public charge inadmissibility from receiving any public benefits for which they are eligible." 

School meals aren't completely off the Trump radar screen, however. As Politics K-12 writer Evie Blad reported last month, the Trump administration is mulling changes to SNAP that could lead to hundreds of thousands of students losing automatic eligibility for free school meals

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the administration is pondering changing eligibility requirements for SNAP to prevent "abuse of a critical safety net system." However, some nutrition advocates counter that children's academic and physical development could suffer, and that the possible shift could impose a significant new burden on some families. 

Photo: President Donald Trump in 2017. The Trump administration's new rule concerning federal benefits and immigration status has some school groups worried about its impact on students. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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