Restricting Immigrants’ Access to Benefits By Expanding the Public Charge Rule

Last week, the Trump Administration continued its onslaught against immigrant families by changing the public charge rule. Historically, the government determined someone a public charge if he or she was “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” For example, if an immigration official determined someone would significantly rely on cash assistance, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), that person could be branded a public charge and blocked from entering the U.S.

Now, the Administration has expanded the definition. Starting October 15, the public charge definition will include someone who “receives one or more public benefit…for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months).” This new definition will make more low- and moderate-income families susceptible to being labeled a public charge and may make low-and moderate-income immigrant families less likely to apply for the public benefits they need.

Protecting safety net programs that make up the very first rungs of the ladder of opportunity is key to helping low-income households thrive. Access to these programs is the first step to financial security. Since many immigrant households are households of color, depriving these families access to public benefits will only further the racial wealth divide and may have profound consequences for families’ well-being and long-term success. The potential so-called “chilling effect” of the expanded public charge rule would cause working immigrant households not to use public benefits for fear of retribution.  

Here’s the new criteria the Administration will use to enforce the rule change:

First, the Administration will assess the weighted factors of the individual’s “Totality of Circumstances” including income and financial status, age, education and skills, health, and family status. These factors can be considered positive or negative.  For example, a family of three with an income 125% below the federal poverty level (FPL), which equals $26,663, will have a negative factor applied to their application. On the other hand, a family of three will receive a positive factor if their income is 250% of the FPL ($53,325). Because this rule targets family-based immigration as well as low- and moderate-wage workers, the rule change will also have a disproportionate impact on people of color. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates this rule change could impact roughly 382,000 immigrants annually, but advocates are reporting that millions of people could be affected.

Secondly, new benefits have been added to the public charge assessment. Before the rule change, only cash assistance and long-term care programs were included in the evaluation. Now, the assessment also includes Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, housing assistance, or any form of federal, state or local cash assistance. If DHS says in the future an applicant may use public assistance programs such as SNAP or public housing, DHS may deny an applicant a green card, a visa or entry to the U.S. The proposed rule would cause major harm to immigrants and their families, communities, localities, states, schools and health care providers and facilities. Immigrant families may be afraid to seek programs their tax dollars help support which may bar a family’s access to essential health care, nutritious food and secure housing.

Low- and moderate-income immigrants deserve a fair chance to come to the U.S. and make a life for themselves and their families, the same consideration that was afforded to many of the ancestors of current Americans. Prosperity Now is proud to have our Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer, Adnan Bokhari, as a member of the National Immigration Law Center’s (NILC) Board of Directors. NILC is dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of immigrants with low income. NILC and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) have joined together to create the Protecting Immigrant Families campaign. For more information about the public charge rule, go to their website here.

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