“I am doing a new thing! . . . I am making a way in the wilderness.” (Isaiah 43:19)
For years, immigrants I knew would swear only by home remedies, roots, and healing prayers to cure their ailments. They’d shudder at the thought of an exorbitant emergency room bill or a dentist’s invoice that they couldn’t pay. Working two to three jobs became the lifestyle of the migrant who feared one thing more than death: Becoming a public charge.
Becoming a 'public charge' carried a gross connotation in our community. It meant that you weren’t self-sufficient, that you were lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to toil for the life you wanted. Sadly, so many immigrant families bought into the idea hook, line and sinker. Because, frankly, becoming a public charge would curse you to a life of impermanence. Being “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence” could jeopardize your golden ticket one day, which is the aim of almost every immigrant who sets foot on America’s crystal shore. As the public charge rule was written in 1999, taking on government assistance meant risking "admission"or lawful permanent residence - the holy “green card.”
Then, COVID-19 hit our nation, and it hit us hard.
Medicine, being an inexact science, evolves over time as new data becomes available. So, too, does our country’s immigration policy.
Within that horrific two-year stretch, lawmakers learned that our country was not a sterilized laboratory in a remote desert. It is an open field subject to diverse sources of pathogens, viruses, germs, and bacteria. It is a revolving door with people from all over the world with all kinds of exotic diseases trampling all over its space.
Regardless of how hard-working, well-intentioned, and independent one is, a virus does not wait for one’s invitation. It will pop up at the most inconvenient time and does not discriminate in its application.
1,068,813 people have left us because of coronavirus, and it did not inquire about one's politics or immigration status before it took them out.
The native-born American and the refugee, the wealthy and the destitute, the corporate tycoon and the welfare-dependent all fell victim to the same insidious, invisible, unrelenting perpetrator.
So, where did that leave us?
Any sound businessman knows that to ensure the long-term viability of a company is to reduce exposure to risk. Prevention is always better than a cure. Repair is always more costly and time-consuming in addressing a problem.
Ditto for a government and a public health official like Dr. Fauci. Whenever a pandemic strikes, researchers, scientists, and doctors search diligently for patient zero: where the disease first started. If unsuccessful, they try to limit the spread by inoculation and treating every potential carrier of the disease. They must adjust their approach to the prevailing conditions.
They initiate tactics and provide resources to everybody who can potentially spread this affliction like wildfire. Whenever a major policy change affects the whole nation, especially in the arena of public health, there is a cost-benefit analysis. They must pay keen attention to a risk-reward ratio.
It was only a matter of time before U.S. Health and Human Services made its startling announcement last September.
Department of Homeland Security will not penalize individuals who choose to access the vast majority of health-related benefits and other supplemental government services available to them, including most Medicaid benefits (except for long-term institutionalization – such as residing in nursing home – at government expense) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). DHS will also not consider non-cash benefits provided by other government agencies including food and nutrition assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); disaster assistance received under the Stafford Act; pandemic assistance; benefits received via a tax credit or deduction; and government pensions or other earned benefits. Receipt of cash-based benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and other similar programs. (HHS Press Release, 8 Sept. 2022)
Finally, ailing Honduran grandmothers could see a healthy future they never thought possible. Mexican labormen with chronic pain could breathe sighs of relief. Disabled asylee children and their mothers could apply for a government program to fund the cost of life-changing surgery.
Just as we all had to pivot since 2020, the Biden-Harris administration did the same. We have to deal with life as it is presented to us, not how it has worked for us in the past.
"People who qualify for Medicaid, Chip and other health programs should receive the care they need without fear of jeopardizing their immigration status,” said HHS secretary Xavier Becerra. "As we have experienced with COVID, it's in the best interest of all Americans when we utilize the health care and other services at our disposal to improve public health for everyone."
COVID changed the rules of the game and so a new day has come. It is time to do "a new thing."