By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON - Fears are mounting across the United States over a proposal by President Donald Trump's administration that would force tens of thousands of families to choose between splitting up or being homeless together.
The proposed rule change, on which a national public comment period ended in July, would deny public housing assistance for "mixed-status" households — those in which at least one member is an undocumented immigrant.
Housing secretary Ben Carson said in May - when the change was first proposed - that it was a necessary move to reduce long wait times for housing assistance.
But housing researchers and advocates say the proposal would not have the desired effect and would instead lead to higher rates of homelessness.
Analysis from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said the rule change would affect more than 108,000 people.
That includes 55,000 children, many of whom are American citizens with an undocumented parent, according to the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (CLPHA), a national non-profit focusing on affordable housing.
That is the situation facing Cari Torres in Los Angeles, California. The single mother from Jalisco, Mexico, is undocumented, but her son was born in the United States.
"If the rule goes on, we will be homeless, my son and I," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, noting that rental rates in Los Angeles are very high and affordable housing largely unavailable.
Torres, 37, said she and her son would probably be forced to stay with friends: "I don't know, and, honestly, I can't imagine how bad this could be."
She added that many other people she knows are in a similar situation and are "afraid of what could happen".
Like many U.S. cities, Los Angeles is already dealing with an acute housing crisis. The city's homelessness rate rose by 16% in the past year alone, according to government figures released in June.
"There are over 50,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness, and we're going to add something like 20% more through this policy," said Bill Przylucki of People Organized for Westside Renewal, a community development group in Los Angeles.
"And the people who would be added are folks who are even more vulnerable because they would face challenges to employment and accessing benefits because of this status issue," he said.
U.S. taxpayers do not subsidise housing for undocumented immigrants under current policy; rather, subsidy rates are prorated depending on the number of eligible members in a household.
The rule change would do away with that prorating, instead making the entire household ineligible if a single member is undocumented.
In a May meeting with lawmakers, Carson said he sees the prorating process as "giving aid and assistance to people who are here illegally".
He also noted that residents who lose housing assistance under the new rule could get deferrals of up to 18 months to give them time to find somewhere else to live.
The housing department did not respond to a request for additional comment.
The proposal brought in more than 30,000 responses during the recent two-month comment period, which Przylucki characterised as unusually large for a housing policy.
He also said 90% of those comments - which were publically available - were negative.
Several pending legislative changes from Democratic lawmakers, floated since the proposal was made public, would bar the housing department from implementing the change.
For now, community advocates like Przylucki are pushing back against what he said is a wave of fear and misinformation, explaining to residents that the proposal may not go forward, while planning for people to remain housed if it does.
"Fear has been effectively instilled on this and, of course, housing authorities are very concerned about that," said Sunia Zaterman, executive director of the CLPHA, whose members manage about 40% of U.S. public housing.
"I think we've reached universal consensus that we have a (housing) crisis. And the scarcity of resources is what is making the waiting list so long — not mixed family status," she said.
As with any U.S. regulatory change, the housing department is required to go through and respond to all submissions received during the public comment period before it decides on its next step.
Zaterman and others said that process would typically take several months.
"A lot of costs in the public sector are related to housing instability and homelessness, and to have a policy that clearly would result in exacerbating that problem is contrary to everything we stand for," said Zaterman.
On Monday the Trump administration also announced that starting in October, it intends to make it more difficult for legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens or get residency if they have used public benefits, including housing assistance.
"If implemented, the rule will grant immigration officers the authority to punish immigrants for accessing services legally," said Ali Noorani, executive director of advocacy group the National Immigration Forum, in a statement.