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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

President Donald Trump published controversial new rules earlier this week making it harder for legal immigrants to get green cards if they use—or are likely to use—Medicaid, food stamps and other social safety net programs.

California has reacted with anticipated outrage.

“This is a reckless policy that targets the health and well-being of immigrant families and communities of color,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press release.

Added Attorney General Xavier Becerra: “We will not stand idly by while this administration targets programs that children and families across our state rely upon. We are ready to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians.”

The expansion of the so-called “public charge” rule was long-anticipated—as was the response in California, home to a disproportionate number of the nation’s immigrants and headquarters of the anti-Trump resistance.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has said the proposed new rules are intended to deny green cards to immigrants seeking U.S. benefits and to “promote the self-sufficiency of aliens within the United States.”

Here are six things to know about the latest immigration battle between the Trump administration and California.


What Would This Rule Actually Do?

Under the new regulation, legal immigrants into the United States could be denied permanent residency if immigration authorities deem them “likely at any time to” enroll in any number of public benefits for more than a year. The list of benefits includes food stamps, federal housing assistance and health insurance through Medicaid.

It’s an idea that the Trump administration has been kicking around since the very beginning of his presidency. Following multiple leaks to the press of versions of the rule, the Department of Homeland Security finally published a proposed draft last October. Earlier this week, the administration published the finalized rule, which will go into effect 60 days from Wednesday.

The new rule would also discourage immigration officers from granting visas to those making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, those receiving healthcare subsidies through the Affordable Care Act, and any applicant “likely to require extensive medical treatment or institutionalization.” The regulation also includes certain exceptions for immigrants serving the military, children, pregnant women and some students.

It’s one in a series of Trump administration initiatives that would curtail government benefits for low-income people and immigrants, including a proposal posted in late July that would cut food stamps to 3.1 million Americans.


Why the Concern?

Since 1882, the federal government has given immigration authorities broad authority to keep people out of the country if they’re deemed likely to become “public charges” of the state. Though the term “public charge” is never actually defined, since 1999, immigration officials have applied it only to people likely to be “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” through cash welfare programs or publicly funded institutional care.

The new rule dramatically expands that definition to include “people who may have the occasion to one time use that type of benefit,” said Deep Gulasekaram, a professor of immigration and constitutional law at Santa Clara University.

“That is unprecedented,” he said. “And that is what truly makes this really a scary proposition for a lot of people.”

The new visa standards would—for now—only be used to approve or deny applications. But the Trump administration is also reportedly considering whether participation in these programs by otherwise legal immigrants could also be used as grounds for deportation.


Who in California Would Be Directly Affected?

Across the country, roughly 382,000 people applying for green cards would be reviewed to determine whether they are—or are likely to become—public charges under the new definition, according to the government. Given that nearly one in five people who received a green card between 2015 and 2017 lived in California, according to federal data, the rule will likely have an outsized impact on California green card applicants.

Advocates expect the impact to reach even further. Many mixed-status families are expected to unenroll from public benefits due to a fear that the public charge rule would impact their or family members’ chances of adjusting their status in the future.

According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, as many as 765,000 people across the state may lose access to Medi-Cal and food stamps due to fear alone.

The UCLA researchers project that the rule could have a particularly strong collateral impact on low-income children in California, where one in two children are part of an immigrant family. Nearly seven in 10 Californians predicted to lose benefits would be children, according to the study.

The federal government offered up a much smaller estimate of the impact, predicting that fewer than 400,000 individuals across the country would forego applying or disenroll.


Has Talk of the New Rule Had a Chilling Effect Already?

Yes. As different versions of the rule have been leaked and then proposed over the past two years, California service providers and advocates have reported immigrant families opting out of public benefits in large numbers.

Elizabeth Ambriz, a CalFresh outreach worker for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano, says this is the main reason that people have given for not applying for food stamps in the past eight months she’s been on the job.

“There are a lot of people who are working on becoming permanent residents, and their lawyers tell them, ‘Do not get CalFresh, because that will make you not be eligible to get your green card,’” Ambriz said in early August while tabling for CalFresh at a local health clinic.

Coupled with a decreasing unemployment rate, the looming new rule has been viewed by anti-poverty workers as a primary driver of a substantial decrease in enrollment in public benefits over the past two years.

One sign that immigrant families are already spooked in California is the drop in the number of households in which only children are eligible and enrolled in food stamps, usually because the parents are undocumented. These households declined by more than 40,000 in the state—including more than 85,000 children—between January 2018 and January 2019, according to an LAist analysis.

Meanwhile, a national poll by the Urban Institute of nearly 2,000 adults in immigrant families found that one in seven reported that someone in their family had declined a public benefit in 2018 because they didn’t want to risk a future green card. The effect was stronger among low-income families, Hispanic families and families with children.


Will California Be Suing?

Will the president will be tweeting? When the Trump administration announced a preliminary version of the rule late last year, Becerra fired off a 51-page letter, in which he called the rule “not supported by evidence, logic, or Congressional action,” “an arbitrary and capricious attack with no legal justification” and, in short, “unlawful.”

As a preview of the state’s legal argument, the letter suggests Becerra may once again argue that the Trump administration failed to follow the rules that govern how new regulations must be introduced. 

For anyone who has watched California take on the Trump administration again and again, it’s a familiar argument. The state has struck down or successfully delayed a number of new regulations by persuading a judge that the administration didn’t explain why a new rule was necessary, didn’t provide enough compelling evidence to support the justification, or simply didn’t give the public enough time to weigh in on the change—all in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

But that argument may be harder to make in this case, said Gulasekaram. 

“As a formal matter of changing the administrative rules, they complied with what is required,” he said, adding that courts give “a lot of deference” to agencies when deciding how to interpret a vaguely written law, particularly in immigration law.

Given the California Justice Department’s propensity for taking the Trump administration to court, state prosecutors could be typing up a complaint as you read this. Asked about a possible lawsuit, the press office for the Office of the Attorney General provided a short written response: “Stay tuned!”


Why Does This Remind Me of California in the 1990s?

According to reporting from Politico, Stephen Miller, one of President Trump’s most loyal and truculent policy advisers, has been the driving, hectoring force within the White House for this regulatory shift.

The Santa Monica-born 33-year-old was only 9 in 1994, when a majority of Californians passed Proposition 187, denying most public services to undocumented immigrants. The proposed constitutional amendment was later thrown out by the California Supreme Court. But Miller seems to be channeling the spirit of Prop 187 anyway, said Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant and frequent critic of his own party and President Trump.

Alongside more aggressive immigration crackdowns, the administration’s family separation policy and ceaselessly hostile immigration rhetoric, Madrid sees this latest regulation as yet another bid to “stoke the fire” and keep the party’s base energized for 2020.

“Will it work? It might for another two years,” said Madrid. “But if history is a guide, those two-year gains will lead to a generation of evisceration (for the Republican Party) at the national level.”

Despite winning the overwhelming support of California’s electorate, many experts say that Prop 187 turned an entire generation of Latino voters away from the California Republican Party. Many political commentators have drawn parallels to that moment in California history and the current political climate nationally. 

“The textbook has been written,” said Madrid. “The history is not old. It’s in the last decade or so.”

Today, proposals to extend legal protections and social services to immigrants who have entered the country illegally enjoy broad support in California, and any policy that could be characterized as an attack on legal immigrants isn’t likely to be well-received.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

When Antoinette Martinez rolls her cart through the produce section of the FoodMaxx in Watsonville, her 5-year-old son, Caden, often asks for strawberries and blueberries.

Sometimes Martinez bends, but usually she sticks to the produce on sale: Roma tomatoes for 69 cents a pound, or cucumbers at three for 99 cents. Banana bunches are relatively cheap.

“If it’s not under a dollar, then I don’t buy it,” Martinez said, bypassing $2 lettuce as Caden clambered into her grocery cart. “It’s about stretching the dollar.”

The food budget isn’t as tight as it used to be since Martinez, a single mother, got a job at the Second Harvest Food Bank in Santa Cruz County. She helps people sign up for food stamps, known in California as CalFresh.

Between her $2,380 monthly paycheck and about $100 she receives in CalFresh, Martinez can make it through the month without her or Caden ever going hungry. But under a new proposal from the Trump Administration, Martinez and her son would lose their food stamps. So would many clients she helps at the food bank, along with an estimated 3.1 million other Americans.

Californians are likely to be hit particularly hard. The proposed rule, announced last week, would undo the ability of states to provide food stamps to households that have incomes above the federal food stamp limit—130 percent of the federal poverty line—but hefty expenses.

That would have the biggest impact in states like California that have raised the minimum wage to try to chase the skyrocketing costs of housing. As California’s minimum wage creeps towards $15 per hour by 2023, many more workers could be bumped off food stamps when their monthly incomes rise above the federal limit.

Under current law, a California family of two with a gross monthly income between 130 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level—or between $1,784 and $2,744—can qualify to receive CalFresh as long as their net income after housing, childcare or medical costs falls under 100 percent of the poverty level, or $1,372.

For now, Martinez falls right into that bracket.

The rule would also cut the benefit for families who have savings or assets above a federal limit that many states, including California, currently waive. That limit—$2,250 for most families—is only slightly more than the median monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in California ($2,110), and about half that of a two-bedroom in San Francisco ($4,730).

“It’s clear that states like California are a target on this,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said that the proposal to eliminate what he called a “loophole” would reduce fraud and save the federal government money—more than $9 billion over the next five years, according to a federal estimate. The proposal could go into effect following a 60-day public comment period. 

“Our job is to make sure folks have the tools they need to move away from (food stamp) dependency … and preserve the benefits for those most in need,” Perdue said.

But advocates counter that the move would largely cut benefits for working families who spend large chunks of their paychecks on housing and care-taking costs for young children or ill or disabled family members.

“There’s actually no evidence that making someone hungrier makes them less dependent on public benefits. And there’s plenty of evidence showing the opposite,” said Bartholow.

The Western Center estimates that some 250,000 Californians could lose CalFresh, based on estimates made when California expanded eligibility in 2008 under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and again in 2013 under Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Additionally, children in those families could lose automatic eligibility for free lunches at school.

The proposal to cut food stamps is the latest in a series of Trump administration initiatives to curtail government benefits for low-income people, including a rule that would tighten food-stamp work requirements, another to block some legal immigrants from getting a green card if they are deemed likely to use public services, and another to adjust the way the federal poverty measure is calculated.

Those other proposed rules have cleared their comment periods, but the Trump administration has yet to impose them.

Opposition from California’s Democratic leaders to the latest proposal was swift and predictable.

“There is not a state in the country that is probably more aggressive in pushing back from a litigation perspective, so that will be analyzed by the lawyers,” Gov. Gavin Newsom told CalMatters. A spokesman for Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has sued the Trump administration over 50 times thus far, said his office was reviewing the proposal.

U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, who represents Martinez’s district, sent Secretary Perdue a letter, signed by 45 California Democrats in Congress, asking that he take into consideration the harmful effects of this proposed rule and act quickly to rescind it.”

Martinez knows the feeling of hunger well. For many years, she said, she was homeless, battling addiction and mental illness. “When I was homeless … there was no place to eat,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t really too sure where to go.”

She recalled what happened next: She got pregnant, enrolled in CalFresh and was finally able to count on a steady source of food. Then she entered an intensive program to help homeless people get back on their feet.

Martinez and her son have now been housed for two years. She said she’s close to finishing her associate degree in human services at Cabrillo College and dreams of being a case manager for a nonprofit, helping others battle addiction and poverty.

She worries about what the food-stamp proposal would mean for her and her growing son. But she said she’s also concerned about the rest of the community she serves in Santa Cruz.

Within the county, 21.7 percent of residents live in poverty, the third-highest rate in the state after Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, according to new data from the Public Policy Institute of California.

“CalFresh is the first line of defense against hunger; the food bank is the second,” Martinez said. “We were barely surviving, but we’re not going to be able to survive if (President Trump) continues to push this.”

Jackie Botts is a journalist at CalMatters working for The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California. CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in National/International

When I hear someone say that “our food system is broken,” it stings.

I think about my mom, who has farmed my whole life, and about my friends and the countless other farmers and ranchers who work hard every day to grow our food. The broken food-system narrative implicitly blames them for problems like environmental degradation, obesity, so-called “food deserts” and the gutting of rural communities.

But the sad truth is that our food system is working exactly how it was designed to—and right now, Congress is reconfiguring it to become even worse.

What’s broken is the 2018 House Farm Bill, which passed in June with little news coverage. This is only the second time in history that Congress has considered a farm bill while Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches. The result is a bill that serves Washington, D.C.’s fattest wallets and most powerful special interests. Its goal can be summed up as: Deregulate the rich, and police the poor.

While the national eye was focused on the bill’s punitive SNAP, or food stamp, work requirements, Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and other Republican leaders worked hard to attack American family farmers. By drafting a behemoth of more than 600 pages that overwhelmed even experts, the writers of this omnibus bill hid devastating legislation in plain sight.

Why is this bill so bad? The House Farm Bill—which goes to conference committee with the version passed by the Senate—is a giveaway to corporate interests at the expense of programs that improve our environment and help family farmers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents over 100 grassroots agriculture organizations across the country, said that the bill “undermines decades of work by farmers and advocates to advance sustainable agriculture.”

The House bill removes federal subsidy caps so that mega-farms and millionaires can collect more of our tax dollars. It eliminates the enormously popular Conservation Stewardship Program, which has helped farmers implement sustainable farming practices on more than 70 million acres of productive farm and forest land. Perhaps most troubling of all, it strays from food and agricultural policy and into a full-frontal attack on the environment by gutting key protections in the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.

“They’re digging up their wish lists and trying to pass things that would be otherwise unacceptable,” said Mark Lipson, a California farmer who has worked on organic farming policy for over 30 years, and who served in President Obama’s Agriculture Department. “These provisions are a raw exercise of power to fulfill a long-term anti-environment agenda.”

The Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act are two of our most important environmental policies, and they are among the few that have legal teeth to protect individual species and their ecosystems. The House farm bill, however, allows toxic chemicals to be used even if they kill endangered species, and even if they’re dumped directly into rivers and streams. It also eliminates our right as citizens to comment on logging projects, and it does away with scientific reviews of logging proposals, no matter the potential environmental consequences.

These injurious provisions are hard to find in the voluminous House farm bill. A stand-alone bill that eviscerates the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act would be unlikely to pass, but there’s so much in this bloated bill that any single destructive act gets drowned out.

I grew up on a farm, operated my own farm for seven years, and work now as an agricultural researcher. I’ve gotten to know family farmers across all walks of life, from large to small, conventional to alternative, and not one of them wants to see our waters more polluted or our landscapes destroyed—all of which this bill enables.

It’s time for a different farm bill, one that redirects the nearly $200 billion of proposed non-nutrition spending (about 70 percent of farm bill funding goes toward nutrition programs; the rest funds agriculture) away from corporate agribusiness and toward family farmers who steward the land. The farm bill could help new and more diverse farmers succeed. Environmental stewardship programs could reward farmers for sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity. We could start to value our farmland as a public good to preserve for future generations.

We don’t yet know if the final bill, a mash-up of the House and Senate versions, will be signed by President Trump before the upcoming midterm elections. Either way, there’s still time to pressure our representatives to do what’s right for farmers and the land we all depend on. So please stop saying our food system is broken, and do what you can to help fix it. Call Congress; get involved in local politics; and go vote. Our farmers and our future depend on it.

Margiana Petersen-Rockney is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a doctoral student studying climate change adaptation in agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley.

Published in Community Voices

After hearing the lamentable Rush Limbaugh refer to the “chickification of America,” because NFL football players wore pink to support breast cancer research (men have breasts too, you know, and also get cancer), I was fuming and determined to write about my anger and frustration.

In spite of that initial impulse, here’s what I’m NOT writing about today:

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month. As someone who was once in an abusive relationship (and if it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone, men included), I’m NOT writing about how important it is that society recognize the reality of how difficult it is to leave and to stay alive. I’m NOT writing about how 44 percent of all women murdered with guns in the U.S. are killed by a current or former intimate partner

More than 135,000 women became extremely poor in 2012—not just poor, but “extremely” poor—and people 65 and older are now more vulnerable to poverty, up significantly from 2011. Although my big fear is to end up eating cat food, I’m NOT writing about why women haven’t demanded compensatory Social Security for those whose “job” is to be a homemaker and mother, so they can survive old age.  Nor am I writing about the growing economic disparity between those at the very top and everyone else, and its disproportionate impact on women.

• The United States is among only eight nations in the world who don’t give women paid maternity leave—it’s often unpaid if you get it at all without jeopardizing your job—and our need for universally available and affordable day care is an embarrassment among nations. But I’m NOT writing about how this affects women’s ability to hold gainful employment or complete their education and thus be economically independent. 

• Women are not present at all on the boards of major corporations. Twitter has a seven-man board with no women; 36 percent of the 2,770 largest public companies have no women on their boards; and companies with women on their boards have better overall economic results. Yet I’m NOT writing about why women aren’t controlling and influencing all investment decisions based on this regrettable fact—although if we could get rid of apartheid, we should be able to get qualified women on corporate boards.

• While “half of all American children will at some point during their childhood reside in a household that uses food stamps for a period of time,” I am NOT writing about the callousness of those who refuse to make work pay a living wage, or who demand deficit reduction by penalizing the vulnerable with food stamp cuts, or who characterize those who need assistance as lazy and unmotivated “takers,” yet won’t support the education or child care that would allow self-sufficiency. 

• Even as abortion and access to “women’s health services” are increasingly subject to ridiculous and onerous restrictions, I’m NOT writing about the difference it makes who appoints judges to federal courts—although it does.

As a political commentator, it’s enticing to address any of these issues and take both policy and political stands. But I decided to write about something bigger than issues or politics: the need to set an entirely new policy agenda. I believe that women, and men who respect women, are uniquely poised to make that happen.

My experience as a mediator has shown that when two polarized sides of a debate are dug in, there is room to head right down the middle and define a new way of moving forward.

Politicians are staking out ever-more-radical positions for niche constituencies, so I am sending out a clarion call to women of every political stripe: WE can demand a new agenda. 

There are more of us. We live longer. We’re getting more educated. We already do whatever we have to do to take care of ourselves and our children. We make choices—not always good ones—and we live with the consequences. We have a collective voice, and it’s time to be heard.

Get involved. Demand, as a group along with your neighbors, to meet with elected officials at every level, and tell them you expect them to pay attention, or you will organize voters against them. If big business and the wealthy can influence public policy, organized and informed voters as a bloc can have an even greater impact.

We can’t leave it to anyone else. Change takes time. Results won’t come quickly. But we have to be present and involved, invested for the long haul.

Get informed. Educate others. Consider running for office. Vote in EVERY election, no matter how small or local. Contrary to conspiracy theories, votes do count! 

Don’t get suckered in by slick slogans designed to “sell” a candidate with sound bites that don’t really inform.

Visit nonpartisan websites like the League of Women Voters or No Labels. Spend as much time on this as you do playing computer games.

Bottom line: I think it’s time for a women’s strike. 

What if, for just two days, women (and the men who support them) across the country stayed home from work, didn’t cook or clean, didn’t deliver a tray of drinks, didn’t operate the cash register, didn’t re-hang clothes on the racks, didn’t make appointments, didn’t help people fill out forms, didn’t sell anyone’s home or didn’t process a bank deposit. 

What if a few agenda items—paid maternity leave, universal child care, comparable equal pay, a raised minimum wage, and greater representation where decisions are made—were highlighted as SO important they must no longer be ignored?

If all else fails, there’s always the Lysistrata strategy

This is adapted from a speech given to the Sun City, Palm Desert Democratic Club on Oct. 28, 2013.

Published in Know Your Neighbors