GORE: Promises Immigrants Open Access to Public Services
In a move designed to allay immigrants' fears that using public health services could thwart their efforts to obtain citizenship or result in deportation, Vice President Al Gore yesterday announced definitively that legal immigrants may use public health insurance programs and other social services "without jeopardizing their chances of becoming U.S. citizens," the San Francisco Chronicle reports. "This new regulation will improve the health of our families by addressing widespread confusion that prevents legal immigrants from signing up for health insurance, school lunch, child care and other essential programs," said Gore, noting that the policy will take effect immediately (Russell, 5/26). The policy covers Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, access to immunizations, testing and treatment for communicable diseases, access to essential nutrition programs such as Food Stamps, WIC and school meal programs, and social support program such as child care services and housing and energy assistance. Gore also said he will direct federal agencies to send word to their field offices to ensure widespread awareness at the local level (White House release, 5/25). The Chronicle notes that "the new rules still do not apply to immigrants who arrive in the United States after Aug. 22, 1996," under a provision of the federal welfare reform law that "forbids use of benefits until a legal immigrant has lived in the United States for five years" (5/26).
Much Needed Clarification
"Civil rights groups Tuesday praised" the move, the Houston Chronicle reports. National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium Vice President Cecilia Munoz, noted, "If immigrants are too scared to use these programs, then eligibility is meaningless" (Lash, 5/25). The news was especially welcomed in California, where state officials had expressed concern that confusion over what constitutes a "public charge" had kept many families from enrolling their children in Healthy Families, the state's CHIP program. The state had repeatedly petitioned the federal government to clarify the issue. California Department of Health Services spokeswoman Carla Agar said, "[T]his appears to be exactly the clarification we have been seeking." She added, "Our goal has been to get as many kids enrolled in Healthy Families as possible, and the biggest barrier has been the 'public charge' issue" (San Francisco Chronicle, 5/26).