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Democrats get assurances from Cuccinelli on immigrants, coronavirus care

Democrats get assurances from Cuccinelli on immigrants, coronavirus care
© Greg Nash

Democratic critics of President TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE's strict immigration policies say they won assurances on Thursday from a top administration official that no one seeking coronavirus-related medical care will suffer legal consequences.

The lawmakers said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), assured them during a closed-door coronavirus briefing that new rules designed to discourage certain immigrants from using taxpayer-funded services won't apply to those seeking tests or other treatments for the coronavirus.

"Mr. Cuccinelli said in no uncertain terms that nobody seeking aid for coronavirus will be in any way affected by the public charge rule," said Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHouse panel spars over GameStop frenzy, trading apps COVID-19 could complicate Pelosi's path to Speaker next year Democrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins MORE (D-Conn.). "Often times you hear people hedge. No — there was no hedge."

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For months, the Democrats have been sounding alarms that the so-called public charge rule — a new guideline that makes it harder for legal immigrants who use social services like Medicaid to obtain green cards — has discouraged those immigrants from seeking government-backed health and nutrition services, even when they're legally eligible to get them.

With the arrival of the coronavirus, those critics are amplifying their concerns, warning that if sick people are avoiding tests and treatments, for any reason, it poses a public health risk for everyone in the vicinity.

"It is a threat to the public health of everybody if people are afraid to come forward and get the services they need to get," said Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOvernight Health Care: CDC approves Pfizer vaccine for adolescents aged 12-15 | House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill | Panel blasts COVID-19 response House moderates signal concerns with Pelosi drug pricing bill Almost 20 advocacy groups team up to pressure Congress to pass health care bill for immigrants MORE (Wash.), a Democrat who represents much of hard-hit Seattle.

"The problem is that if you have any rules that specifically threaten people so that they feel afraid — it doesn't actually matter what the rule says — but you have sent the message: 'Do not come in and seek help.'"

Jayapal broached the issue with Cuccinelli on Thursday morning, during a coronavirus briefing for House lawmakers in the Capitol, conducted by a number of top public-health experts and other administration officials overseeing the White House response.

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Cuccinelli told the lawmakers that seeking coronavirus care would play no factor in a person's future immigrant status, as dictated by the strict new public charge rule, according to several lawmakers in attendance. Pressed by Jayapal, he said he would clarify that policy on the agency's website, those lawmakers said.

The Democrats were encouraged by the response, but are nonetheless wary of the claim. Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, is a noted immigration hawk with a long history supporting hardline policies like the repeal of birthright citizenship.

"It is [reassuring] — assuming it's true," said Himes.

Jayapal took her suspicions a step further: She intends to ask the administration for written confirmation that immigrants seeking coronavirus care will suffer no repercussions to their legal status.

"I've been asking that question for the last week and a half. This is the first time I've heard that, so I want to see it in writing, so that we can then take it out to communities and say, 'Here's the truth,' and try to get the word out," she said.

An official for DHS declined to comment directly on Cuccinelli's message to Congress on Thursday, referring to his testimony Wednesday before the House Homeland Security Committee, where he rejected the notion that the public charge rule was hindering the coronavirus response.

"It's completely unrelated," Cuccinelli told the panel. "Anyone seeking help or testing or healthcare related to the coronavirus does not affect a public charge analysis."

His response runs counter to the testimony from Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who told a separate House panel on Tuesday that the public charge rule has raised enough concerns about discouraging treatment that the agency is investigating its effects on public health.

Cuccinelli dismissed the warning outright.

"If he so testified he was wrong," Cuccinelli said.