• Micah Dicker and Jeffrey Vides-Urrutia

CIANA Explains: What is Public Charge?


Photo: Elvert Barnes

As part of a multi-week series, CIANA’s legal and outreach team will discuss all you need to know about topics affecting immigrants and what you can do to help.

What is Public Charge?

On October 10th, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed to change the current definition of inadmissibility on the grounds of public charge. DHS posted its proposal on the federal register and is asking the public to submit formal comments by December 10th, before the new rule becomes official. The proposed rule, if published, will not only make it more difficult for non-citizens to enter the US legally, but will also close the pathway to citizenship for non-citizens who are receiving public benefits. Additionally, the rule could affect the well-being of many immigrant families who would avoid accessing public benefit programs out of fear of not being able to obtain citizenship.

The public charge rule was designed to identify people who, if admitted into the country, would grow to primarily depend on the federal government as a source of support. If someone is deemed likely to be a public charge, the US government could deny them admission into the country or green card status. Historically, the list of what would deem a person inadmissible was fairly short, which allowed immigrant families in need to seek healthcare, housing, and nutrition assistance without fear of affecting their immigration cases.

Currently, a person’s use of the following public benefits can be used to consider someone’s likelihood to be a public charge: SSI, TANF, state and local cash assistance, and long-term institutional care at the government’s expense. The proposed rule issued by DHS last month would expand this list.

In addition to the use of the public benefits already included in the current definition of public charge, the new rule proposes to include the use of non-emergency Medicaid, SNAP or food stamps, Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, and Housing Assistance. Along with expanding the list of public benefits that would deem an individual inadmissible on the grounds of public charge, the proposed rule also increases new income thresholds for households trying to prove that they will not be a public charge. The rule would require a family of four to make at least $63,000 a year, or in other words, for a couple with no children to make $41,150 to not to be considered a public charge, or 250% above the federal federal poverty guidelines. The evaluation would also consider other criteria such as a person’s age, health, and education when evaluating someone’s likelihood to be a public charge.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), if this new rule is published, the percentage of non-citizens using public benefits that would label an individual as a public charge would expand from the current policy rate of 3% to 47%. The proposed rule would also disproportionately affect family-based immigrants, since employment-based immigrants are more likely to have job offers and greater educational attainment.

Who will the proposed rule affect?

If published, the proposed rule could have chilling effects on the livelihoods of many immigrant families. Many immigrants and their families, although they may be eligible for public benefits, might refrain from accessing these programs out of fear of possible consequences on their immigration cases. The MPI reports that these effects could reach about 9.2 million US-born children of immigrants who receive public benefits, along with about 17.7 million immigrants who currently receive public benefits. The MPI also estimates that anywhere between 20% to 60% of the total 27 million recipients of public benefits who could be affected by this new rule are expected to dis-enroll from these programs.

The chilling effects that the proposed rule may cause will disproportionately affect US-born children with immigrant parents. While public benefit programs ensure that a child has access to healthy food, stable housing, and adequate healthcare, the new rule will restrict a child’s access to basic needs that promote healthy development. CLASP reports that by restricting a child’s access to these basic needs, could lead to toxic stress in a child, which would harm their development.

What can I do to help?

It is clear that the proposed rule will have a severely negative impact on many immigrant families and that it must not be published. Fortunately, there is still time to submit formal comments criticizing the proposal. After the commenting deadline on December 10th, the federal government will then review all of the comments before finalizing their decision to publish the rule.

We urge all to submit their own comments because we fear the negative impact the rule would have on the immigrant communities we serve. The proposed rule is tremendously unfair to families with similar backgrounds as our clients, especially since they are working extraordinarily hard to integrate into US society while more and more obstacles to integration are being built by the current presidential administration. In these times of uncertainty, CIANA will remain a haven and a voice for our immigrant families.

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