Earlier this month, a controversial immigration rule from the Trump administration was put on hold by federal judges in five different states. Although the new regulation has not yet been put into law, it is still having an impact in the Roaring Fork Valley.
It has been called the “public charge rule,” and it could make immigration more difficult for those seeking green cards and temporary visas. If the rule were to go into place, immigration officials would consider whether or not an applicant is “self-sufficient.”
The rule would complicate the path to legal residency for an applicant utilizing public benefits such as food stamps, housing assistance or Medicaid.
Five federal judges have issued temporary injunctions to the rule so far this month. Although changes to the immigration process have been held up in court, those who worry they may be affected have acted on their fear.
“We have a rising number of uninsured patients and our Medicaid enrollment patients are dropping fairly drastically,” said Danyelle Rigli, outreach coordinator for Mountain Family Health. “One of the reasons that we think that is, is because of the public charge.”
Mountain Family Health provides medical care to underserved people in the Roaring Fork Valley through locations in Basalt and Glenwood Springs.
In the past 12 months, Mountain Family has seen about 1,000 Medicaid patients drop their service. In the same span, the provider has picked up about 500 uninsured patients, according to Rigli. The organization does not check the legal status of its patients, so there is no way to confirm whether those drops are a direct result of public charge, but there is reason to believe there is a connection.
“Based on word of mouth from our employees,” Rigli said. “They're hearing that people are reluctant to enroll for programs or to even see if they're eligible because of this.”
Some patients have gone as far as trying to wipe out any trace that they have ever received healthcare.
“We have had people that have said, ‘Can you please purge my records from your system because I don't want anyone knowing that I was there,’” Rigli said.
Across the nation, reports follow a similar theme. People are reticent to seek out healthcare or other public services out of fear that doing so might interfere with their pursuit of legal residency.
Allison Neswood, a health care attorney with the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, says even people who would not be affected by the passage of the rule are showing apprehension.
“The large majority are not going to become eligible for any of these programs until after they get their green card anyway,” Neswood said. “So for the most part, this public benefit aspect of the rule is really a kind of red herring that people are hearing about and it's causing fear.”
Rigli says Mountain Family Health has seen that play out in its clinics.
"The rules don't have to change,” Rigli said. “This law has not changed and it was pending for months and months, but it changed the behavior of the people.”
Rigli says that change can have some dangerous effects. By pulling away from basic primary healthcare, people put themselves at a higher level of risk for avoidable chronic conditions and emergency room visits later in life.
Mountain Family is on a campaign to educate people about what public charge actually entails and who might be affected.
The future of the rule itself remains up in the air. There are still some lawsuits against public charge awaiting a decision, and the Trump administration is expected to appeal recent injunctions. Some experts say the ruling could make its way all the way to the Supreme Court.