Commentary

Taking undocumented immigrants’ housing won’t help the ‘most vulnerable,’ Mr. President | John L. Micek

April 23, 2019 6:30 am

A Mexican family makes tamales to ring in the New Year (Photo by Francisca Escobar, Flickr Commons)

The Trump administration is upping the ante in its war on undocumented immigrants with a new proposal to boot them from public housing — all in the name of helping “the most vulnerable” Americans.

But immigration activists and advocates for low-income Pennsylvanians say all the White House’s plan would do is leave thousands of children, who are American citizens, potentially homeless.

“This is a punitive move, not a substantive one,” Rachel Garland, a housing law attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, told the Capital-Star on Monday. That’s about as polite a way to describe “fear-mongering” as you’re likely to hear this week.

So here’s the how and why of it:

Last week, the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development floated a new rule expanding the Homeland Security-administered Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements program, or SAVE.

The goal here, as first reported by the conservative Daily Caller with its usual gleeful maliciousness, is to tighten up verification procedures that allowed some undocumented immigrants to obtain public housing without disclosing their legal status, the New York Times and other outlets reported.

Which sounds great and all, until, as usual, you get to the fine print.

As CityLab reports, HUD has long allowed families to live together in federally subsidized housing, even if one member of the family is in the country illegally. Typically, that means that the head of a household, such as a mother or father, might be undocumented, while their children are citizens.

Under the proposed HUD rule, if the SAVE program determines that even one member of a household is undocumented, that would be enough to get an entire family booted from public housing — even if that person is not accepting any subsidized benefit, Garland said.

Surprising no one, HUD Secretary Ben Carson took an entirely incorrect victory lap, writing on Twitter that “Thanks to [President Donald Trump’s] leadership, we are putting America’s most vulnerable first. Our nation faces affordable housing challenges and hundreds of thousands of citizens are waiting for many years on waitlists to get housing assistance.”

The most vulnerable, y’know, like kids who are American citizens, who’d be “penalized” through no fault of their own and likely be forced into “substandard” housing, Garland observed Monday.

If the rule is eventually implemented, about 32,000 families nationwide would be affected. That’s less than a drop in the bucket compared to the “1.6 million families on Public Housing waiting lists and more than 2.8 million families on Housing Choice Voucher waiting lists (or Section 8),” according to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

Betty Cruz, of the Pittsburgh-based immigrant advocacy campaign All for All, said she sees the administration’s action as the latest in a long line attempting to reduce immigrants — legal and undocumented alike — to a “scapegoat or a bogeyman.”

“Affordable housing is an important issue, and we should see positive action. Throughout the state, federal, and local level, there is important work to be done,” she said. “This is another distraction to try to blame an entire group of people as if they are the problem instead of focusing on what the administration should be doing to provide affordable housing for our whole community.”

In addition, the proposed rule would eat into the bottom lines of local housing authorities, who charge full price on housing to undocumented immigrants and charge the subsidized price to citizens, Garland added. Federal support for subsidized housing fell steadily from 2011 to 2018, when Congress boosted HUD’s core housing programs by 10 percent, or $4.7 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to Garland, Congress has 15 days from last Wednesday, when HUD promulgated its proposed rule, to conduct its own evaluation. After that, the rule goes to a 60-day public comment period. When that ends, HUD could choose to put the rule into effect (where it would almost certainly face legal challenges) or not do anything at all with it. Advocates such as Garland are hoping the latter is the case.

“If the administration wanted to alleviate the affordable housing crisis, their energy would be better spent asking Congress to allocate more money to local housing authorities,” Garland said.

Cruz, meanwhile, said the latest furor over HUD’s proposed rule-making is also a distraction from the fact that any debate over meaningful immigration reform has effectively ground to a halt on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t see any action or progress by this administration when it comes to the rights of immigrants, black Americans, or the LGBT community,” she said. “Everything is being slow-walked and delayed. Even the most bipartisan issues.”

And, in the end, the damage is collateral — a fact that was driven home to her when she went door-knocking in Pittsburgh recently with another immigrants rights group. People answering the door, she said, were surprised to hear of the “severity” of the challenges facing the immigrant community — in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

“It was encouraging to get out there and knock on doors, to have [people] take an interest,” she said. “These policies don’t just affect the immigrant community. They affect all of us.”

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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