Living in public housing with an undocumented immigrant? Your family could be displaced

Families in the Central Valley are “very likely” to be affected by a new proposal to force undocumented family members to move out of public housing, local officials and advocates said this week.

Congress is reviewing an early proposal by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that would target families with mixed-immigration status. For example, that includes families who might have U.S.-born children, but one of their parents might be undocumented.

Merced County has about 25,000 undocumented adults, according to recent estimates from county officials. UC Merced had nearly 600 undocumented students in 2018, which gives it the highest percentage for that population of any school in the University of California system.

HUD says the amendment to existing regulations is needed to provide existing resources to those who are legally in the country.

“Our country is facing affordable housing challenges and we need to make certain our scarce public resources help those who are legally entitled to them,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement Monday. “Given the overwhelming demand for our programs, fairness requires that we devote ourselves to legal residents who have been waiting, some for many years, to access affordable housing.”

But immigration advocates and those who work with vulnerable communities expressed shock over the proposal, saying it would displace thousands of immigrant families and their children in the Central Valley.

Maricela Gutierrez, executive director of Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, said immigrant working families rely on this federal assistance to be able to stay afloat, given the high cost of living in California.

It would not only impact those who are undocumented and living with family members in public housing, but also U.S.-born children living under the same roof, she said.

“It has the potential to displace thousands of families....I’m pretty shocked to read about the length the Trump administration will go to further relegate undocumented immigrant communities to the shadows,” Gutierrez said. “It’s just an example of another method or strategy from the Trump administration to remove immigrants from this country.”

HUD Spokesman Raffi Williams said the proposal, which hasn’t been published yet, is being reviewed by Congress. After the review, he said, it will undergo a 60-day public comment period. Currently, an actual copy of the proposal hasn’t been made public.

“Once the public comment period closes, HUD will consider the feedback we have received before publishing a final rule,” Williams said on Monday.

If the proposed change is enacted, Williams said, households with family members who are undocumented, and “who cannot find other suitable affordable housing may obtain temporary deferral of termination of assistance for up to 18 months.”

Preston Prince, executive director of the Fresno Housing Authority, which administers public housing locally, said any change in policy would be “cause for concern.”

Prince said information the authority currently has on the proposed change only includes what has been reported in the media.

”Fresno is rich in culture and diversity and given the agriculture industry throughout the Central Valley, it is very likely that some of the families we serve may be impacted by such proposed rule,” he said.

Prince said his agency’s priority is to provide housing stability for families and provide subsidies. “Any policy changes that proposes to do otherwise will certainly be cause for concern,” he said.

Prince said his agency will review the proposed change as soon as it becomes available for public review.

Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute, which works with low-income families, said the impacts of the proposed change could be “catastrophic” to immigrant families in the region.

“As an organization, we are going to hold a hard line against the attacks on undocumented immigrants and their families that are on subsidized housing,” he said on Monday.

Though, he said, his organization is still “waiting to see the totality of the administration’s proposal.”

“While we are appalled at the direction the administration is going, and the impacts that it will have on families here in the Central Valley,” he said. “In our community, we want to ensure that the right protections are in place for undocumented immigrants and their families.”

There are millions of households that receive federal housing assistance, nationwide. HUD estimates that there are some 32,000 households, receiving assistance from HUD, and headed by an individual who is not legally in the country.

One expert said the number could be much higher.

Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which studies the consequences of legal and illegal immigration in the U.S., said an estimated 3 percent to 6 percent of households on public housing assistance are headed by a family member who is undocumented in the country. That translates to anywhere between 100,000 to 200,000 households nationwide, which Camarota said, is still a small fraction of all public housing units.

Camarota’s estimate is based on a Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), and HUD’s estimate is based on administrative data. But administrative data only includes those that have an identification, and a large share of undocumented individuals use fake identities, he said.

Fresno Housing Authority spokeswoman Brandi Johnson on Tuesday said the agency serves a total of 50,000 families that are on public housing and Section 8. She said it would take a lot of staff time to analyze how many of those families would be impacted under the proposed change, and the agency also doesn’t want families that might have undocumented family members to be fearful.

Existing policy allows for public housing rent to be pro-rated for undocumented family members, Camarota said. However, “there’s not much evidence that that has ever happened.”

Although public housing units headed by undocumented individuals represent a small share, it’s still a large number of units and money, he said. Providing public housing assistance for undocumented people raises questions as to whether that’s the best use of taxpayer funded resources, particularly because there’s a shortage of affordable housing.

“It seems like a reasonable approach to a problem,” Camarota said on Monday of the HUD’s proposal.