The Challenges of Immigration Policy

The Challenges of Immigration Policy (with Benyamin Chao)

In this episode, the Health & Public Benefits Campaign Coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center. Benyamin Chao talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about Immigration Policy.

FEATURING Benyamin Chao
July 30, 2021



In this episode, the Health & Public Benefits Campaign Coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center. Benyamin Chao talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about Immigration Policy.

About Benyamin Chao:

Benyamin Chao is the Health & Public Benefits Campaign Coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC). His duties include working with the California Protecting Immigrant Families (CAPIF) Coalition to protect access to safety net programs for immigrants in California.

Learn more about Benyamin Chao via

Podcast Highlights:

“...Immigrants have been excluded from public healthcare systems.”

-       Benyamin Chao on the topic of unique challenges immigrants face.

“My mom would tell me...don't apply for calfresh, don't share your information because it may give you away or be used against you. ”

-       Benyamin Chao on his personal and family experience under old immigration policies.

“If hundreds of thousands or millions of people in California get access to a pathway to citizenship, that also would allow them to qualify for federal safety net programs as well... And I think the fundamental question is who belongs in California? And for me, I believe, that we are slowly helping people see that your immigration status does not affect whether or not you belong.”

-       Benyamin Chao on his hopes for the future of immigration policy and the discussion surrounding it.


Benyamin Chao (Health & Public Benefits Campaign Coordinator)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Kevin Karami (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

C Codaine

Upbeat Emotive by Fretbound

Video Link:

Commercial Links:

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • The Challenges of Immigration Policy (with Benyamin Chao)


    Introduction:Welcome to policy chats, the official podcast of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. I'm your host, Kevin Karami. Join me and my classmates as we learn about potential policy solutions for today's biggest societal challenges. Joining us today is the health and public benefits campaign coordinator at the California immigrant Policy Center and Benyamin Chao. My fellow classmate, Maddie Bunting and I chatted with him about immigration policy. 


    Kevin Karami: Mr Chao, you are the health and public benefits coordinator at the California Immigrant Policy Center. You work with the California protecting immigrant families coalition to provide access to safety net programs for immigrants in California. Thank you for joining us today. 


    Benyamin Chao: Thank you for having me. 


    Kevin Karami: So we have a lot to go over, so I want to jump straight into it. A major issue that immigrants commonly face is the lack of access to resources or programs that help to improve health, improve their living conditions, and overall situation. So I guess our first question is, what are the major programs, opportunities, resources, or even policies that are missing in our crucial that we need to implement or invest more time into. 


    Benyamin Chao: Great, Well, thank you, Kevin, for asking that question. And it's a really important question because at the heart of it really is what are the ways that immigrants are excluded from this safety net that we provide to people in our state and in our country. And so at CIPC, addressing the exclusions that Americans face and our safety net as one of our biggest priorities. And as you mentioned, I am a part of CIPCs, health and public benefits to you. What one of the, one of the largest things, and this is really, this inequality was uncovered through our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, is that Americans have been excluded from public healthcare systems. With our state's response to COVID-19, things like COVID-19 testing and treatment and vaccines are available to everyone regardless of income or immigration status. But when it comes to long-term preventative care, not everyone can afford that. And so we know through our work at CRPC and through our conversations with organizations that work with communities across the state, is that undocumented immigrants are the largest uninsured population, just, just category in the state of California. And so that kind of plays into our initiative which is health for all, which is, which is aimed for several years to address the exclusion in our state's Medi-Cal program, which is California's version of Medicaid. A low, free to low cost insurance program. For, for folks with low incomes. Are people who qualify based on their income. That vision that we had in health falls extended into how we look at other issue areas, whether that's our food safety net. So program programs like caliph, brush and state funded counterpart, the California Food Access Program also discriminate along the lines of immigration status. And so we, we launched a campaign this year called footfall, which aims to address that inequality as well and remove that and we're gonna exclusion so that immigrants who call, who, who, who don't have the resources to provide food on the table every day, can do so without having to worry in the same way that anyone else would be able to do so and go to a social services office and apply. If they are a US citizen or a green card permanent resident or green card holder. So I'll stop there to see if you have any more questions about it. 


    Maddie Bunting: I would love to ask a follow up by state and the country was working very hard with marketing to get out the word that we do not check immigration status. But I do think there might be some caution within the community in that area. I'm curious if California immigrant Policy Center and I had had anything to do with this. If you can maybe give us some insight on that or any other issues that the immigrant community is facing? 


    Benyamin Chao: Yeah. I agree that there does need to be a lot of effort and the state of California has been aware of that. I think the federal government is catching up, especially given that our last administration. Really tried to do the opposite and tried to discourage the community from, from interacting with the government or accessing resources. So that, that actually is at the heart of what I do in my role at CPC, which is helping lead the California Protecting and we're getting families coalition. This coalition formed in 2018 in response to a regulatory change that the prior administration made to a statute called public charge. And so, you know, just in essence, what what public charge is is that it's, it's a, it's a means of inadmissibility or portability that the US USCIS, US Customs Immigration Services can use when determining whether to allow someone into the country or allow them to adjust their status. And it looks at whether that person will become a public charge to the country, meaning that they will rely on government benefits for subsistence purposes. And so what the prior administration did was change the rule that went into effect in February of 2020. So that a wider category of public benefit programs that are non-cash benefits like Medicaid, like snap, supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and others would be considered in this test. And this instilled a lot of fear in our community who already were losing trust and interacting with the government or maybe never had trust to begin with. You know, given the larger climate of fear, given that we had a president who was basically calling for communities at large to be removed from this country or painting them in a negative light. So what this public charge rule, which we now call the 2019 public charge rule, did was create a chilling effect. And this is what advocates referred to it. A chilling effect. Meaning that people directly impact, but issues feel discouraged. You accessing public benefits because they believe it will harm their ability to adjust their status or even posed an immediate threat to them and their family members. And this is something that I can personally attest to because I used to be in document and myself. My family isn't documented. And so just intuitively growing up, my mom would tell me, oh, you don't. There's a time where after graduating I wanted to apply for CalFresh with my partner who is a US citizen. And my mom was telling me, who don't apply for fresh, don't share your information because it may give you away or it can be used against you. And so I understand that fear, but advocates have been working really hard to address misinformation. And now that the rule has been reversed, as of March 2021, we've returned to the 1999 definition of public charge, which only accounts cash assistance for income maintenance and long-term institutional care. That means programs like Medicaid or Medicare L and Cal, Fresh wake, et cetera, are unequivocally safe, safer to use. So we're trying to address that misinformation, repair, fear, and employ trusted community messengers, and that might not always be an enroller at your county social services department. Maybe that needs to be someone who looks like you, someone who speaks the same language as you, someone who comes from the same region of the country emigrated with. So there needs to be a diverse set of community members who are trained as community educators. And so that's, that's, that's, that's part of the work that California protecting immigrant families are California pith has done, which is developed materials and flyers and digital tools to get the word out and then trust between the messengers like promo photos were community educators can build those relationships one-on-one with people in person. Or maybe, you know, now that we have been in the pandemic for a while doing that, okay, canvassing and other ways, whether that's digital or using things like different messenger apps and stuff like that. Reaching people where they're at. 


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    Kevin Karami: I think that’s really amazing; the work you're doing. It's really important and it definitely doesn't get as much attention. And it definitely needs to be not only this anymore attention, I also think that it's just more people need to be aware of how difficult it is, and how many people it takes to actually help these immigrants out. And you want to shift gears a little bit and talk about immigration policy and immigration in general. So in immigration policy and immigration overall has just received a lot more attention in the last decade than it ever really has. What would you say are some of the reasons, whether they're good or bad, caused more people to have real vested interests in immigration policy in the border crisis. 


    Benyamin Chao: And I'm sure folks may have a variety of perspectives on this. But one thing I've heard from other immigration advocates, and maybe this is a bad reason why immigration has taken the stage, but there has been an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and the public discourse. So at the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, I'm not going to repeat the past the prior president said. But he painted immigrants, especially from Central America, as being criminals and being detrimental to how he perceived America to be. And because of that, it enabled the sort of, in my opinion, that body anti-immigrant sentiment in the country and made it, made, it, made some people feel more okay. It's vocalizing maybe some negative perceptions they had about immigrants. And I want to say that California is not immune. And the late nineties there is the whole movement around Prop 187, which if it actually was implemented, what if severely harmed. And we're gonna have communities in California. But at the same time, things like Prop 187 and this sort of an ending barrage of anti-immigrant policy is coming from the last federal administration. It mobilizes people. And I started working on immigrant rights before, during the Obama administration, when I was a student at UC Berkeley. And This is the issue that we talked about today that was happening back then. But because the, the, the, the news constantly brought up this discourse around immigrants and questions of should, do they belong to this country? Should we, should we do about our border and immigration policy? Do we extend benefits? Do we continue excluding benefits to immigrants? And more people became concerned and sod as, as a priority issue. That's, that's how, you know, during the last administration in California, there was a huge swell of pro and we're good policies. But then within the state, because if you think about it, when you have a federal government that doesn't want to cooperate with your vision for a more welcoming and belonging country. You know, you, you, you, you work on any levers of change that you can get in California. Given our demographics, we receive a large portion of new incoming immigrants and refugees to this country. It wasn't an easy sell to our leadership in the state capital. So we saw the California Values Act, which in theory was a sanctuary law. Which messaging wise. Share this message that, Yeah, ICE enforcement at largest is not welcome. In California, of course, there were carve-outs that still allowed cooperation between local law enforcement and ice if you had a criminal conviction. So there are flaws in it as well. But also the passage of health for all kids and 2016, health for all young adults in 2019, which went into effect last year, which covers everyone up to age 26. And then, and then this year, continuing that momentum. Because of the pandemic we pass health for all older, older adults. This was something that the governor and the legislature reached an agreement with in the last budget, which is to cover one of the largest age groups, which is adults 15 up. So that momentum that we built in resistance to the, to the prior administration is something that I hope we can continue. And I've just on the ground, more community education. It's just an opportunity when, whenever there is increased discussion, it's an opportunity to reach more people. And the organizer is that we work with just, just do they. They deserve so much credit for actually educating people, changing hearts and minds, and building long-term power. Instead of just reacting and being defensive against an aggressive and aggressive demagogue, we were actually trying to pose an alternative in California. And I hope that the model that we have for state policy can be exported to other states. And we're seeing this in New York and also the state of Illinois passed a law for all older, older adults as well, though the age groups aren't identical. Or even driving our driver's license bill as an initiative that has been replicated in other states as well, allowing anyone regardless of immigration status to get a driver's license. So for me, what really opened my eyes during that time when immigration became a central issue and a highly politicized issue at the state. State government is a really viable place to begin, changing the way we talk about policy. And I think as a, as a native, as a, as a person who grew up in California. It's like our backyard. So we can actually talk to these people and they're more accessible and more accessible for community members who want to engage in the political process. 


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    Maddie Bunting: Yes, Thank you for sharing with us incredible work that you can impart that up and that the great strides California has made and exactly hopefully it can flow out across the country as well. Obviously, the pandemic COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but also immigration and immigrants. I'm curious what challenges you've seen that stemmed from the pandemic. In the immigrant community.


    Benyamin Chao: There are two things that come to mind. One is just the disparate impact of the virus itself on the health of our communities. And the other is the economic impacts that have come with it, the economic downturn and fall off of the lock downs. But I'll start with health because that's more of what I focused on in my work. When you, when, you know, we, we all want a buzzword that's become popular in the past year as essential workers. And we know that immigrants comprise a large portion of the essential workers in our state and in the country. I would even say are over-represented compared to non immigrants just due to if you're undocumented, you don't have access to the same quality of employment because of how you have to verify your, your immigration status with some employers. So if you think about our essential workers, farm workers, who continue to produce the food that feeds this country in this nation. In a pandemic and also an extreme heat wave. In the Central Valley. They're not, they don't have the same access to the same protections that people who work at home have. You know, that's an extreme privilege that I've had. Caregivers, another frontline worker, my family, I have a family of caregivers. And so when we think that's something that we highlighted a lot at our health for all pushes that, you know, and we're going to take care of our elders. But who's going to take care of our undocumented elders. And given that older folks are more vulnerable to COVID-19, we've also seen disparate impacts there. And also restaurant workers, I think line cooks for restaurant workers have seen some of the highest mortality rates when it comes to COVID-19. Because of the risk of workplace exposure and a lot of immigrants work in restaurants. I used to work in a restaurant myself before the pandemic. So all that to say, the impact of the virus has been hard in our communities. And so that created a greater need for community outreach and education. Dispelling misinformation has been a key issue. And making sure that that information is available in languages beyond English and also beyond English and Spanish. So imagine, I just remember for me like when the epidemic started lockdowns happened, I was like How do I get an appointment to get tested? And it took hours to get tested at first before infrastructure was built. And if you add on the barriers of language access and the barriers of like, okay, I'm still working because I'm an essential worker and I can't work from home or get sick time as easily. You're not able to get tested as frequently or have as much access and, and in a systematic way that, that has caused the outcomes we see. And end with vaccines. We have a COVID-19 vaccine Equity Committee. And so CFTC has played a role and really telling the state administration, our public health department, that communities are a priority. This vaccine affects everyone. But if we leave out emigrants from our vaccine plan, everyone, everyone will be affected. So our community partners like the Long Beach and we're gonna Rights Coalition, which works out of Southern California. Civic, which is a central valley and we're going to integrate the Coalition. They've, they have been doing more of that work on the ground and sharing with us what their findings are. I'm hosting webinars and videos on Facebook, ads, TikToks, whatever it takes, and also even hosting mobile vaccine clinics that people can go to. So that's one of the challenges. But we've been doing a lot of work and this is something that might be worth another conversation, but vaccine access within detention centers as well as another huge issue that I wish I had more expertise to tell you about. But when we think about who's left behind, folks who are both documented and impacted by the criminal justice system. Who maybe don't have access to social, adequate social and hygiene aren't getting the same access to the vaccine that we do not being incarcerated. The other challenge is the economic well-being of our families and our community. When it comes to federal stimulus, many immigrants categorically were excluded from the federal stimulus. Unfortunately and the state has tried to compensate for that with things like the Golden State stimulus, $600 up to $1200 one time payments. But that doesn't even come close to the amount of federal stimulus that some families have gotten. I'm not to say the federal stimulus was enough. I think it should have been more as well. But, what got our communities at large to the pandemic is unemployment insurance. And undocumented workers don't qualify for unemploymentinsurance. So that is another barrier that, and we're getting families face when it comes to just holding, holding through the pandemic. And so there's coalitions like this safety net for all Coalition, which is continuously advocated for the past year for the state to come up with a solution and to set aside some money to prioritize workers who have been excluded and come up with an alternative there. Um, because what we've provided so far isn't isn't enough to be frank. And so it seems like at least in California as we continue to improve vaccine rates, rates will continue to reopen. Businesses will start re-energizing. And we're moving into this recovery phase of the pandemic. So my fear is that all of these lessons we've learned all the rhetoric about, we're all in this together. High School Musical asks, it stays. And we plan out our economic recovery in a way that is truly inclusive and doesn't just consider immigrants as a community, as an afterthought. And we're going to make up what California is. One out of six children in California have at least one undocumented parent. So undocumented people are a part of the fabric of what California is, whether we like it or not. Um, so when we talk about all California, we have to put immigrants at the beginning of the planning process public policy wise, and bring them to the table as well because they know their issues better than some researchers. Do. You know how they see it? They see it and live it every day. 


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    Kevin Karami: Thank you for that.I think you did an amazing job of just going over the pandemic and how it's affected so many families in California. And you're also beyond, just think it's really impressive work you've done. It is also amazing that we have. And we're starting to see if at least a few more resources than we did in the past for these families and individuals actually get help. For my final question, kind of alluded to. We can go a little bit deeper. Taking a step back and looking at this topic; what kind of developments do you think in the coming years under the administration should be on what kind of developments would you like to see in the future?


    Benyamin Chao: The one that comes to mind, which is very timely, is the crisis over the DACA program. So at the end of last week, there was a decision for a federal court in Texas that placed an injunction on the DACA program. So folks who are applying to DACA for the first time are not able to apply for Dhaka, which includes people I know who have been in this country for decades. And just in the long-term, the DACA program is in jeopardy. And these are people who are well integrated workers in a part of our workforce, part of the family. Their, their, their bread, they provide maybe their income to their families, breadwinners for their families. And largely folks who never were included. And the DACA program when it was formed in 2012. And so there is discussion on the federal level of creating more pathways, pathways to citizenship for folks who we call dreamers, TPS holders, and essential workers and their various different proposals. But there seems to be some momentum in Congress around using the budget reconciliation process, similar to what we did for the american recovery Recovery Act. To implement a pathway to citizenship and fix some of the gaps and immigration system. So this is outside the scope of what we do at the California immigration policies, senator, but it would highly impact what we do. Because if you think about it, if, you know, you know, hundreds of thousands or millions of people. And in California, I get access to a pathway to citizenship that also would allow them to qualify for federal safety net programs as well. And all of the state funds that we use to accommodate for the exclusions of the federal government provides. We can, we can, we can re-invest to provide more resources for immigrant communities. And we can't undo the harms of the past administration. We can't undo the harms of this historical exclusion. But we can, we can do collectively to re-evaluate our values. And I think the fundamental question is, who belongs in California? And for me, I believe that we're slowly and helping people see that your immigration status does not affect whether or not you belong. And if you don't have an authorized legal, if you don't have status, you still belong in California because you are here. You have been paying taxes. You You are important to someone. You might be a parent, a friend to someone, someone else. And as we've seen with the pandemic, your well-being as connected to my well-being. So that's kind of more of the abstract philosophical question at the essence of this is who belongs. And then bringing that back to more of the policy around how can we reflect that value we have collectively in our political process. So making sure that when it comes to our state budgetary process, we reflect that our budget is a statement of our values as California. And so let's invest in immigrants or even our local budgets as well. And cities. And the policies that we, we advocate for, the reforms we advocate for need to reflect those values as well. So yeah, that's what I'm hopeful for, is we'll see what happens on the federal front. But all the power building, sort of consciousness raising that we've done in California, I think will take us to the future that we've been we've been fighting for.


    Kevin Karami: Thank you, Mr. Chao, for joining us today. I think your story is super inspiring. It's amazing how much work you've done. I'm sure the work you'll continue to do will impact so many lives in California. And probably even beyond and like you said, a lot of the work done here in California, hopefully the export of a few other states into the rest of them. It is really, really inspiring to see just how much work you've done working for the California Immigration Policy Center. So thank you for joining us today. This was a really important discussion and it’s a discussion that really needs to happen more often.


    Benyamin Chao: Yeah, Thank you, Kevin and Maddie.

    Kevin Karami: So I just want to take a few moments at the end of this episode, to unfortunately announce that this will be Maddie's final episode as host of policy chats. She’s been amazing on the podcast and she's taught me so much. Maddie, do you have some words for our audience?


    Maddie Bunting:Yes, Thanks Kevin. I'm so sad to make this announcement, but unfortunately, the time has come and I graduated from the UCR School of Public Policy this past spring and was so lucky enough to continue my tenure as host through July. But this does mark my very last episode. I want to thank Dean Deolalikar, Cathy, Kim, Kurt Schwabe, Mark Manalang for trusting me with this podcast. It became the favorite part of my job and I'm just so lucky to have had the opportunity to speak with so many amazing people and learn so much. So Kevin, you are the perfect replacement. I have every ounce of faith in you. You've been an amazing co-host these past few months, and I cannot wait to see where this podcast takes you and just the feature policy chats and generals. So I will continue listening and watching and I want to thank everyone out there for supporting us and tuning in every other Friday. And I wish everyone the very best of luck. 


    Kevin Karami: Thank you, Maddie and I’ve learned from the best and we can't wait to see what you do in the future as well.


    Maddie Bunting: Thank you.


    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. Our theme music was produced by C Codaine. I'm Kevin Karami, until next time.