Although we all are probably sick of Zoom, it’s worth noting how virtual platforms have made “getting together” over the course of a pandemic as easy as clicking a link. Of course, it is still difficult and strange to not be able to see colleagues in person, or to have kids, pets, roommates and partners humming around in our backgrounds throughout the work day.

Yet, we have managed to use virtual space to gather and connect – whether with friends and family, for work purposes, or for recovery and fellowship. We’ve chatted, silently applauded with emojis, and spent too much time muted or unmuted — often the opposite of whichever we intended. Here at the Michigan League for Public Policy, we’ve successfully held our annual policy forum, advocacy boot camps and other “events” online to stay engaged with our hundreds of supporters and partners around the state and even created a virtual Jeopardy game on the Michigan budget process. 

Many of the great coalitions we are a part of have also adapted to the “new normal,” with changes in both technology and strategy. In November, Protecting Immigrant Families—Michigan hosted a virtual Train-the-Trainer event about changes to the “public charge” rule where this kind of community could exist (I’ll admit, there was no virtual Jeopardy). In attendance were community advocates, leaders and experts from across the state with the same goals: both to learn more about the public charge rule and its impact on benefits access as well as to practice how best to share accurate information within their own communities. When it comes to combating unclear and often misleading messaging, the need for community knowledge and mutual support is incredibly important. 

It doesn’t help that this year has also certainly been . . . uncertain. Along with myriad questions about what the coming months and years might look like, the question of whether the new public charge rule is or is not in effect has not always been clear-cut either. 

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There was a halt to implementation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although within a few months this was ultimately lifted. Since then, the rule has been vacated and then stayed — allowed to remain in effect — within a matter of days, which happened in early November. As this helpful timeline describes, most recently, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld injunctions (orders to cease implementing the rule) in 18 states and Washington, D.C., which had filed a lawsuit against the rule, including Michigan. As of writing, it is not clear whether the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will take action on this decision. 

Even if the public charge rule will never apply to many immigrants, this legal whiplash and a lack of trusted information contribute to widespread fears among immigrant families about accessing public benefits that they are entitled to. Still, throughout the rollercoaster of litigation and implementation updates, advocates have stood together in the face of this rule and its impact. There has been a steadfast commitment to fighting fear with facts and helping all families in Michigan know their rights and receive public benefits without worry of immigration repercussions down the line. 

Plus, moving into 2021, there is hope that a Biden-Harris administration — bringing a new tone and new policy priorities to the White House—will quickly work to reverse Trump administration’s public charge rule. In fact, reversing the new public charge rule has been included publicly in President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for his first 100 days in office, which would be accomplished through administration changes and the rulemaking process that agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State must follow. 

Another option to unwind the knot of litigation involves the incoming Biden administration, who would then be defending the public charge rule in court, deciding that they no longer wish to defend the rule. Yet, the incoming administration will be inheriting a Department of Justice that has been defending these changes for many months, so this approach is not guaranteed, though it would be a quick vehicle to block the rule from being in effect.  

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In addition, we must remember that even if the incoming administration acts quickly to reverse the new public charge rule, damage has already been done. 

The “chilling effect” on public programs, driven largely by fearmongering and misinformation, is real and cannot be reversed immediately through a policy change. Instead, continued community education from trusted sources will be required even if the new public charge rule is no more. This is a vital part of putting the right information in the hands of immigrant families in our state and across the country, so everyone can make the best choices for themselves and their families. 

I hope you will join Protecting Immigrant Families—Michigan and community partners in committing to providing facts over fear in the upcoming year as we see what the future holds for the public charge rule. We are hopeful that the new presidential administration will bring about an important about-face in immigration policy, but much work will need to be done to ensure the changes in Washington are clear and resonate in immigrant communities here in Michigan.