Immigrants who sign up for a broad range of taxpayer-funded services, including food aid or subsidized preschool, could face a tougher road to legal residency, and eventually U.S. citizenship, under a new proposed guideline from the Trump administration.
Currently, immigration officials can label an immigrant as likely to become a "public charge" if they depend on the government for long-term cash assistance or care. That can hurt their eligibility to become permanent residents, also known as green card holders.
A draft document from the Department of Homeland Security would expand those criteria to include immigrants who use food assistance like CalFresh or preschool programs like Head Start -- even if the beneficiaries are their children born in the U.S.
"If the Secretary of Homeland Security determines that an alien applying for admission or adjustment of status is likely to become a public charge at any time, the alien is inadmissible," says the DHS document. An immigrant's health, age, financial assets and education are additional factors considered in that test.
Such revisions could be felt significantly in California, where half of all children under age 18 have at least one parent who is an immigrant, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
The DHS did not return KQED's requests for comment. But a spokesman for the agency quoted by the news agency Reuters said the agency seeks to "be good stewards of taxpayer funds."
People who are already permanent residents or who receive the public benefits before the draft guidelines become effective would not be impacted.
Some of the public programs that officials would consider under the proposed guidelines include the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and housing vouchers through Section 8.
Immigrant advocates say they will fight the proposed changes.
"It's just cruel to make people have to make that choice that they're going to provide for their families or adjust their status to a lawful residency here," said Alvaro Huerta, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. "And it makes absolutely no sense when you think of how these programs help people get on their feet and able to provide for their families."
Any changes to the public charge immigration test would require public comment and take months to be approved, according to Huerta and other observers.
But many immigrants who are eligible for tax-funded benefits are already wary of signing up for any kind of government assistance.
"I have friends and relatives who are afraid it'll affect them in some way when they try to fix their status to become legal residents," said Priscilla, a cook in a San Francisco restaurant who declined to use her last name because she lacks work authorization papers.
President Trump has vowed to crack down on illegal immigration. Shortly after he took office, San Francisco experienced a small dip in the number of households with noncitizens applying for and renewing applications for CalFresh, said Chandra Johnson, communications director with the city's Human Services Agency.
The agency estimates one in four San Franciscans don't make enough money to provide three meals a day for their families or themselves, and officials there worry that more families could go hungry.
"Please don't walk away from anything that's giving your family support today," Johnson said. "We are really trying to make sure that there isn't fear in our communities based on speculation or leaked documents, and that people are not going without benefits that they are entitled to."
She added the federal government currently has no access to the agency's data systems.