Catherine Rampell: The Trump administration is also punishing legal immigrants. Here’s how.

Immigration activists, left, protest against the Maricopa County Sheriff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the county jail in an ongoing effort to get immigration authorities out as counter demonstrators gather as well Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Many people assume that the Trump administration’s immigration agenda is about punishing the undocumented. But for a taste of how it is punishing legal immigrants — and their U.S.-citizen families — consider the case of Maria, a doctor who came to California legally from Mexico.

The first thing you need to know is that when her first child was born, five years ago, Maria had trouble breastfeeding.

Her medical training had taught her how important good nutrition is for newborns. But reading textbooks and treating patients didn’t help her when her own baby wouldn’t latch, or when breastfeeding was painful, or she couldn’t produce enough milk.

Maria was far from home. She didn't have anyone nearby she could turn to for advice. Worse, her marriage was deteriorating. She worried how she'd support a child on her own since her Mexican credentials didn't authorize her to practice medicine in the United States.

"I was here alone," said Maria, who spoke to me (both for this column and a PBS "NewsHour" segment) on the condition that I not disclose her last name because she fears retaliation from immigration authorities. "No family, no friends."

Salvation came from the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which offered lactation support and, later, nutritional and parenting guidance.

"To receive that call every week and [have them] tell me, 'Oh, just keep trying. You can do this. If you have another question you can call us' — it was a lot of help," she recalled.

Maria eventually divorced. Two years ago, she married a native-born U.S. citizen who sponsored her for a green card. This past summer the family welcomed a baby girl.

Within days, though, the newborn lost a frightening amount of weight. Maria was again having trouble producing enough milk. Her pediatrician recommended enrolling in WIC, which would provide free formula.

But this time, Maria didn't apply.

"We decided we didn't want to try," she said, "because it will be a problem for my residency."

She'd heard — from friends, from the news — that the Trump administration might kick her out of the country if her family used any anti-poverty benefits. It didn't matter that her baby (like her older daughter, and her husband) is a U.S. citizen, legally entitled to such services. Maria feared that any help she sought for her children might threaten her own ability to stay here.

And she had reason to worry.

From his earliest days in office, President Trump has sought to reinterpret — that is, massively expand — something called the "public charge" rule. It's a relatively vague part of federal law used to screen whether an immigrant is likely to be financially self-sufficient or end up on the dole.

Under long-standing federal policy, this rule primarily meant seeing whether more than half of an immigrant's income came from cash welfare assistance.

But based on multiple, confusing, ever-changing, leaked proposals, the Trump administration has long wanted to multiply the list of red flags. Sometimes Head Start and the Children's Health Insurance Program were listed in a draft; sometimes not. Sometimes if a U.S.-citizen child was on Medicaid, that could disqualify the immigrant parent; sometimes not.

By the time the administration published its official proposal for public comment last week, the rule — although still harsher than current policy — had narrowed significantly. Meanwhile, fear and confusion have already infiltrated immigrant communities.

The current proposal, for instance, no longer treats WIC as potentially disqualifying for immigrants. But Maria is still unwilling to enroll her infant. "Everything is changing and this year is OK, but maybe next year is not OK," she said.

Over recent months, health-care providers and social workers around the country have told me similar stories about immigrants asking to remove themselves or their U.S.-citizen children from food stamps, health records, and other safety-net programs that they're legally eligible for, and that won't actually threaten anyone's immigration status.

The Trump administration declined a request for an interview, but it's hard not to wonder whether this chilling effect was deliberate. At the very least, it was predictable.

This is not just a bleeding-heart story. For all the Trump administration's rhetoric about saving public dollars, it's also likely fiscally backward. Families are pulling their kids out of safety-net programs that we know turn children into better-educated, more productive taxpayers, who are less likely to need public services in adulthood.

Not to mention the risks these children face if an expanded public charge rule results in more families fractured across borders.

"Who," Maria asked, "is going to raise my kids?"

Catherine Rampell

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.