WENATCHEE — Maria del Carmen López Sanchez doesn’t have time to worry about the Trump administration's proposed immigration changes that could affect her family.

She has three boys to raise — 9-year-old Carlos, 7-year-old Jonathan and 3-year-old Alexander — citizenship classes she’s taking, and at the end of the day, she needs to make sure the bills get paid.

“My husband is barely making enough to pay for rent and utilities,” Maria Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I would be terrified to think if any of my children would be sick, because then we would have to cut out one of our bills.”

But Maria Sanchez and many of her friends are now considering whether to accept government assistance for medical care or food, because it could affect their ability to become citizens. The "public charge" policy could affect 20 million children, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care research nonprofit. Nine out of 10 of those children are U.S. citizens, according to the foundation.  

Some people in the community are even weighing whether to tell their children, some of whom are U.S. citizens, to stop accepting reduced-cost school lunches, Maria Sanchez said. They are afraid it might be considered a government benefit.

The proposal

The Trump Administration proposed immigration rule change would make it so people who use benefits such as Medicare, Medicaid or food stamps could be determined to be a “public charge,” according to the Department of Homeland Security. Those individuals could then be denied visas, green cards or not be allowed to become naturalized citizens.

According to Homeland Security, the rule change is meant to ensure that people who enter the U.S. can support themselves financially, will not become reliant on public benefits and turn into burdens on American taxpayers.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., did not respond to requests to comment on the potential rule change. Mark Krikorian, Center for Immigration Studies executive director, said in an interview with the New York Times that this policy change is overdue and the U.S. should no longer be holding up low-income workers. 

“This isn’t a moral issue,” Krikorian said. “A Honduran with a sixth-grade education level isn’t morally flawed, but he works three jobs and still can’t feed his family. Immigrants with low levels of skill are a mismatch for a modern society like ours.”

The rule change would only affect people seeking admission into the United States or adjusting their immigration status, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that supports immigrant rights.

The current “public charge” policy requires immigration officers to deny entry into the country or citizenship only if people are likely to become "primarily" dependent on government support, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. But immigration officers are not allowed to consider people’s use of health care, nutrition or housing programs.

The new rule would punish any use of government assistance regardless of the amount, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Maria's story

Maria Sanchez has been living in the United States since 1999, she said through an interpreter, Norma Gallegos, Hand in Hand Immigration Services program director.

In 2008, she and Carlos Sanchez married and had three children. Carlos had immigrated to the United States when he was 9 years old and became a naturalized citizen in 2013. He works full-time in construction.

Their parents moved to the United States to give them more opportunities and to receive better educations, she said.

Her father became established in the United States after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act during the Reagan Administration, she said. Working in the United States, he would return during the winter to Mexico to see his family, but his employer wanted him to stay on full time.

"The agricultural owner of the company didn’t want him to go back to Mexico and so he didn’t go back to Mexico for two years,” Maria Sanchez said. “So finally the owner of the orchard said, ‘I hope you legalize your family so you don’t have to keeping going. I need you here full year.'"

Maria Sanchez has been taking citizenship classes and studying English since April of this year at Hand in Hand Immigration Services. She took some time off during the cherry harvest because she needed to make money for her family. 

Receiving benefits

Maria Sanchez doesn’t want to use government benefits if she doesn’t have to, she said. Her children receive health care from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services. The family also receives food stamps when they qualify.

She works during the summer picking cherries and saves to pay for the family’s car insurance and the children’s school supplies. But the money isn’t enough to cover their health insurance.

She wishes she could also work full time, she said. Her family came to this country for the opportunity to get good jobs, but she also knows it is important to be with her children in their formative years before they go to school.

The reason she thinks it is OK for her to receive benefits now is because her father and father-in-law worked their entire lives and paid their taxes, she said. No members of her family have ever used government benefits before, because of the embarrassment. But for this limited period of time she thinks it is OK.

“It is not really something you want to brag about it,” Maria Sanchez said. “So many of (Carlos’s) people in his family have worked and never applied for benefits. I’m only doing it certain times of the year.”

If they couldn’t receive health care through the government it would be a scary situation for her, she said. An unexpected medical bill could cost hundreds of dollars and force the family to consider some of their bills like their utilities. It could come down to keeping the heat on or paying for their sick child.

Community health

The proposed rule change doesn’t make much sense from the standpoint of the health care community because it might keep people from seeking medical treatment, said David Olson, executive director of Columbia Valley Community Health.

If people can’t see a doctor when they first get sick, illnesses or injuries could develop into something worse, he said. Then something that could have been cured cheaply with a quick doctor’s appointment turns into an expensive emergency room visit. It is illegal for hospitals to turn people away if they don’t have health insurance.

“The biggest concern is that someone who could be treated with a prescription or a visit where the doctor says, ‘Get more exercise,’ that care will not be provided and that person gets sicker and sicker,” Olson said. “They suffer. Their family suffers. They can’t go to work, so their employer suffers.”

The proposed rule also doesn’t specify how someone uses public benefits, but merely that they use any kind of public benefits, he said. So someone who makes $35,000 a year and pays their taxes could be punished for receiving health care.

“It is a ‘we can’t afford to pay for everybody’ issue,” Olson said. “But if that is the case why would you want to take out a person who puts more money into the system than they take out?”

What's next?

The comment period for the rule change ended on Dec. 10. Homeland Security is now considering whether to approve the changes, but hasn't announced a date for its decision.

As for Maria Sanchez, she received a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Monday saying her citizenship application had been received, Carlos Sanchez said. She and her family are now waiting in anticipation to see if it is accepted so she can take complete the in-person interview and citizenship test. 

Environment, county and health reporter

Tony Buhr has been a professional reporter for almost seven years. He worked for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin as a cops and courts reporter. The Ellensburg Daily Records as a cops and courts, breaking news, agriculture and water reporter.