The potential impact in Hawaii of President Donald Trump’s proposed rule aimed at blocking undocumented immigrants from using public housing is uncertain.

Local public officials say at least a dozen families would be evicted if the rule is implemented.

But local attorneys warn the proposal could affect many more families, not just those who are undocumented, because it’s common for even legal residents to lack key papers and struggle to replace them.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development published the proposed rule in the Federal Register last week that would require HUD to verify the immigration status of all recipients of assistance who are under 62.

The rule would make parents who are undocumented immigrants ineligible to receive public housing even if their children are U.S. citizens.

The Washington Post reported the plan could displace more than 55,000 children who are either U.S. citizens or legal residents.

Mayor Wright Homes in Kalihi, pictured here, and other public housing complexes would be barred from taking undocumented immigrants. Anthony Quintano/ Civil Beat/2016

Hakim Ouansafi, who leads the Hawaii Public Housing Authority, says that four state public housing tenants and one Section 8 recipient in Hawaii have undocumented family members.

Duane Hosaka, assistant housing administrator in Hawaii County, says the county’s Section 8 program currently supports five families that include undocumented immigrants.

In Honolulu County, just two families who have Section 8 vouchers are undocumented, according to spokesman Alexander Zannes.

A Kauai County official said the county doesn’t keep track of immigration status. A spokesman for Maui County did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Public comments on the proposed rule are due by July 9.

Tatjana Johnson, a managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, believes the proposed policy would be devastating because many families have mixed immigration status.

“It will tear families apart or cause the entire household to lose subsidized housing assistance and potentially become homeless,” she said.

Exacerbating Homelessness

Public housing in Hawaii is a safety net for people with very low incomes, particularly those who have struggled with homelessness. Many residents work but don’t earn enough to afford market rent and support their families. Others are disabled or otherwise unable to work.

The Housing Choice Voucher Program, better known as Section 8, functions similarly by subsidizing private rentals.

Hawaii has about 6,100 public housing units and there’s a huge unmet demand — the state’s wait list includes nearly 14,000 names. Honolulu has the highest rate of homelessness per capita for any U.S. city.

“It’s such a terrible, punishing kind of thing for a public good like housing that we so desperately need especially in Hawaii,” says Dina Shek, executive director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii. “What’s more essential than being housed?”

She said it may be difficult for people who are here legally to prove their status.

It’s not uncommon for people, especially those who have experienced homelessness, to lose one or more of their documents. Replacing those can be expensive. The I-94, which indicates entry into the U.S., costs $445 to replace, which is out of reach for many low-income people.

“If you’re homeless because you can’t find that piece of paper, it just seems ridiculous,” Shek says.

Shek is also concerned about how HUD could define legal status.

Recent guidance from the Department of Homeland Security requiring visas or employment authorization documents to obtain federally approved driver’s licenses have caused confusion and frustration among thousands of Pacific Islander migrants who are legal residents but have neither document.

HUD’s proposed rule doesn’t say exactly how immigration status would be determined.

But one of the bigger concerns is how policies like this proposed rule could instill fear among immigrants and cause them to self-police and not take advantage of vital safety nets, Shek says.

People might get off the housing wait list or quietly leave their units out of fear of eviction and deportation. They may not apply for public housing even if they’re qualified and remain homeless because of that fear.

Shek compared this proposal to last year’s proposed rule that would make it easier to deny immigrants green cards if the government concludes they are likely to rely on public benefits like food stamps.

That proposed rule would expand the definition of a “public charge” and take into account reliance on Medicaid, food stamps and Section 8. If an immigrant is deemed likely to be a public charge, he or she may be denied admission to the country or permanent legal residency.

The public charge proposed rule has been highly criticized by national immigrant advocacy groups and received more than 200,000 comments last fall. The rule hasn’t gone into effect yet.

“It’s one assault after another for immigrant communities,” Shek said. “Hawaii may not have felt the brunt right away when Trump came in office but certainly we’re feeling it now.”

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