What Is “Public Charge”?
“Public charge” is an immigration rule that is used to assess whether an applicant for permanent residency or visa to the U.S. is likely to become reliant on certain government programs after their application is approved. The most recent benefits considered for the test have been cash benefits, SSI, CalWORKS, and CAP; benefits that only 3 percent of noncitizens utilize. These programs usually provide public benefits to low-income individuals to help cover health, nutrition, or housing needs.(1)
Changes to the Rule in August 2019
The definition of “public charge” has been very narrow, so the government had rarely denied applications based on those grounds.(2) However, on Aug. 12, 2019, the Trump administration announced a new rule that will modify “public charge” policies and will go into full effect 60 days from Aug. 14, 2019.
The new definition will require U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to dive deeper into an immigrant’s history, economic prospects, and health. The changes will consider cash benefits for income maintenance, SNAP, most forms of Medicaid, premium and cost-sharing subsidies for Medicare Part D (Medicare Part D LIS), Section 8 Housing Assistance under the HCV Program, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and certain other forms of subsidized housing.(4) This is expected to lead to numerous disastrous effects for the immigrant community.
USCIS officers will be given full discretion to reject an individual’s application for admission or residency. If they feel like the applicant does not make enough money to support a large family or has an ongoing health problem, applications can be denied. Specifically, applicants will fail the test if their income is less than 250 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, which is $64,375 for a family of four, or if they have a medical condition without an unsubsidized source of health insurance.
According to an estimate conducted by the Center for American Progress, about one-third of the U.S. population would fail the test if they were to take it. More importantly, the new test will be ongoing so even if someone passes the test, they may fail it in the future due to an economic recession, layoffs, unexpected health problems, disability, etc.(3)
Overall, this rule has the power to “change the face of legal immigration” as it would likely sharply decrease family-based immigration of lower-income people from countries like China or Latin America.
Expected Results of the Rule Change
Due to this new rule, it is expected that lawful immigrant families, including U.S.-born children, will likely withdraw from Medicaid and other health or housing services out of fear that their residency or citizenship will be jeopardized. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Nationwide, over 19 million, or one in four (25%), children live in a family with an immigrant parent, and nearly nine in 10 (86%) of these children are citizens.“ Thus, there will likely be decreased participation of individuals who are not affected by the rule in the first place.
This retreat from social services is expected to lead to an increase in uninsured individuals and negatively affect the economic stability and health of immigrant families. Moreover, the growth and healthy development of the children of these families will be at risk.(5)
Immigrants Are Still Eligible for Benefits
Due to the complicated nature of the rule, it is crucial to highlight who will not be affected and encourage them to continue to utilize the benefits they’re entitled to. The changes to “public charge” policies will not affect individuals who are applying for the following:
- Green Card renewal
- DACA renewal
- U or T Visa
- Asylum or Refugee status
- Special Immigrant Juvenile Status
- Green Card based on U/T/SIJ, VAWA, or Asylum
Permanent residents applying for citizenship, DACA recipients, TPS holders, asylees, or refugees will not be affected by the new rules. The changes also do not apply to those who have Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, are protected by VAWA, or have U/T/SIJ Visas.
If the applicant is the primary caregiver of another member of the household (e.g., a child or elderly relative), the government will take this into consideration. The purpose of this is to account for difficult-to-monetize contributions from individuals who lack employment due to their full-time and unpaid care of others.(6)
Lastly, the government will only look at the benefits that the applicant is getting for themselves, and not at the benefits that other members of the household may be receiving. So if a mother is receiving public benefits, such as food stamps, for her children who are U.S. citizens, then she should not be in danger of failing the test.(7)
Because the rule does not go into effect until October 2019, individuals have time to withdraw; however, USCIS will be considering whether an applicant has disenrolled or requested to disenroll from the public benefits.
Remember: Immigrants who have already been granted entrance to the country under DACA, TPS, VAWA, refugee or asylee status, or who have permanent residency (“green card”) will not be affected. However, those planning to apply for permanent residency or a visa may be impacted by the new rule. It is crucial for immigrant communities to stay up to date with “public charge” policies and to know their rights.
CommunityConnect Labs is piloting a Public Charge Assistance program with Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County to help communities address recent changes to the rule – to find out more about becoming a pilot partner, please contact us.
(1) “Public Charge.” The Libre Project. https://www.thelibreproject.org/public-charge.html#screeningtool
(2) Dara Lind. Dec. 10, 2018. “Trump’s Controversial ‘Public Charge’ Proposal That Could Change the Face of Legal Immigration, Explained.” Vox. https://www.vox.com/2018/9/24/17892350/public-charge-immigration-food-stamps-medicaid-trump-comments
(3) Melissa Boteach, Shawn Fremstad, Katherine Gallagher Robbins, Heidi Schultheis, and Rachel West. July 19, 2018. “Trump’s Immigration Plan Imposes Radical New Income and Health Tests.” Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/poverty/reports/2018/07/19/453174/trumps-immigration-plan-imposes-radical-new-income-health-tests
(4) “Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ Policies for Immigrants: Implications for Health Coverage.” Sept. 24, 2018. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. https://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/fact-sheet/proposed-changes-to-public-charge-policies-for-immigrants-implications-for-health-coverage
(5) The Libre Project.
(6) Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds (unpublished). Aug. 12, 2019. Department of Homeland Security. https://s3.amazonaws.com/public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2019-17142.pdf
(7) Lind. Vox.