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Government mistrust by mixed-immigration status families during the pandemic led to fear and confusion

Newswise — From the start of the pandemic, the general population faced several fears amidst the rising death toll, business shutdowns, circulating virus, and overall uncertainty of the future. At the same time, the federal government implemented several anti-immigration policies, such as the Public Charge Rule, which created an environment of heightened distress among families with and without U.S. citizenship.

In a study published in the journal Health EquityBrittany Morey, PhD, MPH, senior author and assistant professor of health, society and behavior at the UC Irvine Program in Public Health, highlights the health inequities that were exacerbated during the height of the pandemic. This study shared experiences of families that included individuals with different citizenship or immigration statuses, known as mixed-status families.

The Public Charge Rule is applied to non-citizens in the process of naturalization to determine if they will become dependent on certain government benefits, like cash assistance, in the future, which would make them a “public charge.” During the pandemic, this rule was slightly eased for extreme cases of need deemed credible by the federal government but it was not advertised widely. Therefore, many families, including those with U.S. citizen children, avoided using any COVID-19 assistance out of fear that it would jeopardize their family members’ legal status in the future. 

Using in-depth, semi-structured interviews between February and April 2021, Stephanie Iraheta, corresponding author and a UCI Public Health Policy alumna, applied grounded theory to assess the level of awareness around the Public Charge Rule and the health challenges these families faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. The results from the interviews confirmed that the fear of repercussions from these anti-immigration policies affected mixed-status families’ health and access to desperately needed resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Key themes were pulled from the interviews around financial need, job insecurity, housing insecurity, food insecurity, mental health and distrust of government and health officials. Many COVID-19 resources were critical in surviving the pandemic, but the distrust in the government and fear of public charge rule stopped many mixed-status families from using them.

“It is clear that these anti-immigration policies had extremely harsh and detrimental effects on the lives of so many marginalized families,” says Morey. “Every individual in the U.S., regardless of immigration status, deserves to have their basic needs met during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope our findings push equity-driven policies forward and make policymakers think twice before implementing bills that affect the health of our entire community.”

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