In a packed room in Jackson Heights – one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York and the US as a whole – cancer survivor Blanca Palomeque explains how the Trump administration’s new policies will force immigrants into making impossible decisions.
The 56-year-old from Ecuador, who was treated for ovarian cancer in the US before applying for her green card 11 years ago, explains how if the new “public charge” rule – which will penalize immigrants for using benefits – had been in place then, “I don’t know what I would have done”.
“I can’t imagine being put in a position of choosing between my health and getting my green card. This rule will put families at risk who are in the same situation that I was in,” she says through a translator.
She adds: “This rule is horrific and clearly yet another attack against immigrant families. The Trump administration is sending a clear message that if you are not white and you are not wealthy you are not welcome here.”
The public charge rule is the latest in a series of policies seemingly designed to worsen the lives of immigrants. And as one of the country’s most diverse neighborhoods in New York’s most diverse borough – 47.5% of Queens’ population was born outside the US, according to census data, while a recent report by the mayor’s office of immigrant affairs found it is home to 184,000 undocumented immigrants – the impact is being acutely felt in Jackson Heights, and other New York neighborhoods like it.
Behind Palomeque a group of supporters hold placards with slogans such as “Yes to immigrants, No to Trump’s racist wealth test” and “Immigrant communities will not be intimidated. We are #heretostay.” Over the sound of an overhead rumbling subway train, they chant: “Sí se puede!” (Yes we can!).
The meeting, last month at Make the Road New York, which provides services including health program enrollment and legal representation, marked the announcement of a lawsuit filed by them and other community organizations seeking to block the public charge rule. It is one of a number of lawsuits relating to the new rule by multiple states and advocacy groups.
Susan Welber, a Legal Aid Society lawyer working on the case, says the new rule, due to come into force on 15 October, is “unconstitutional, it’s arbitrary, capricious, it’s in violation of the immigration nationality act and 120 years of understanding what it means to be a public charge”.
She adds: “People feel confused and fearful of what it means for them. It is a very complex rule and people need a lot of help to understand it.”
Make the Road New York say they have already been inundated with people asking whether they should withdraw from vital services, fearing it will impact their future immigration status.
New York city council will vote on Thursday on a package of bills to ensure staff at city agencies are trained on public charge and to direct those affected to get advice and help from experts.
At a July town hall, the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the Bronx and Queens, said at least half of all casework her office receives is related to immigration.
But the community is fighting back.
Speaking at the event, Catalina Cruz, the state assembly member for Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst and the first Dreamer to run for office in New York, told the group: “My district will be one of the most affected, not just by this [public charge] rule, but by every single new piece of political strategy that comes out of the White House.”
To cheers and applause, she added: “So while they fight for us in court, we’re going to fight for you and keep you informed in our district.”
Later, in the lobby, Palomeque says the threat of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) raids have made some people fearful of going about their day-to-day lives. “There are some people that are afraid to go out to the streets and are afraid that if Ice is nearby, what’s going to happen to them and what could potentially happen to their children?” She knows a mother who was deported and is now separated from her children. “That’s very sad because that’s not how families should be,” she adds.
Yatziri Tovar, a Make the Road New York spokeswoman, says they try to combat fear through education. “Community organizations got together and together we were at train stops flyering and showing people ‘Look, these are your rights’ and giving out these flyers in different languages because we know … there are over 100 languages spoken in Queens and so it was important that every single member of our community knew what their rights were in their language,” Tovar says. “That’s one of the things that Trump has tried to attack, communities, but it also shows that our community’s not standing down anymore, it’s not giving into that fear.”
Amaha Kassa, founder and executive director of African Communities Together, an immigrant organization with members across New York, including Queens, says even people with legal status are afraid.
The threat of being separated from family members, he says, can feel like “living in a siege”. He adds: “It’s this constant fear. The adults often try to shelter the children from it, but children pick up on these things and so it’s a constant uncertainty, it’s a feeling of that somebody might not come home at any time and concern about what happens to your family if that’s the case.”
While he thinks the situation in general is worsening because of the “accumulative effect of now months and years of having daily assaults”, people are starting to organize and plan ahead as a community.
“Over time people can’t sort of persist in panic mode all of the time … people are already starting to look ahead, thinking about when we have a different Congress and when we may have a different president, you know, is there hope? Is there a possibility for change?”