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Immigration 101: What is “Public Charge” and What Changes is the Trump Administration is Proposing?

 

The Trump Administration is seeking to dramatically limit the ability of working-class immigrants to enter the U.S. and hamper their ability to remain, by making it easier to bar immigrants from the U.S. if they are likely to need help. The proposed “public charge” change could prohibit immigrants from obtaining permanent residency or from entering the country if they make less than $73,550 for a family of five.

This move is just one part of the Administration’s systemic restructuring of the U.S. immigration system into a crueler and more restrictionist version. Since its inception, the Trump Administration has gutted temporary protected status (TPS), drastically lowered refugee numbers, and limited asylum claims for victims of domestic and gang violence — all of which are policies seeking to radically limit the numbers of immigrants entering the country, and all of which turn our backs on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable migrants.

What is “public charge”?

“Public charge” is a designation referring to an individual who primarily relays on governmental cash assistance for their day-to-day expenses or who is likely to in the future.  The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), makes the “public charge” determination, which makes an immigrant inadmissible to the U.S. or ineligible to become a lawful permanent resident.

Having received cash benefits in the past can be a factor in the government’s decision, but it cannot be the sole factor. No one single factor determines whether USCIS will deem someone a “public charge.” Many factors like an individual’s age, health, income, family size, education, and skills are weighed to determine if an immigrant will be deemed a public charge.

While a version of “public charge” has been around since colonial times, the designation has historically had narrow and fluctuating outlines, and more detailed guidelines were not outlined until the early 1990s. Those guidelines limited the “public charge” designation mostly to individuals who received more than 50 percent of their income from cash assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).  Non-cash benefits, like food stamps, energy assistance, or Medicaid are not calculated as part of the monetary threshold for a ‘“public charge” determination.

Are there exemptions to a “public charge” designation?

Yes, some groups are not affected by “public charge” including: refugees, asylees, survivors of trafficking, survivors of domestic violence or other crimes (T or U visa applicants/holders), Violence Against Women Act self-petitioners, special immigrant juveniles, and certain other immigrants.

What are the changes the Trump Administration is proposing?

After leaking a desire to change the “public charge” guidelines in August, the Administration released their proposed changes on October 10. The radical changes to the law would no longer just take cash benefits into account but would factor in any government assistance program including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps); Medicaid, Section 8 (housing); Medicare Part D; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The proposed rule change means that immigrants could be penalized for a number of “heavily negative” factors which could lead to a “public charge” determination, such as making under 125% of the federal poverty level; being a child, senior, or person with limited English proficiency; having poor credit history, limited education, or a large family; or requiring a Department of Homeland Security fee waiver.

If the change takes effect, avoiding designation as a “public charge” will require immigrants to demonstrate a household income level above 250% of the federal poverty guidelines. Currently, that means $41,150 for a couple with no children, $63,000 for a family of four, or $73,550 for a family of five. In context, working full time at the federal minimum wage results in just $15,080 annually.

Besides being a cruel and a radical shift in our immigration policies, Trump’s proposed change is also a gift to the anti-immigrant movement, which has strong ties with the Administration. This rule change is straight out of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) anti-immigration policy wish list that they outlined in April 2016. CIS is part of white nationalist John Tanton’s anti-immigrant network.

What will be the effect be if the proposed changes take place?

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the change could result in a 15-fold increase in “public charge” determinations, increasing them “from 3 percent under current policy to 47 percent.” They estimate that the new policy could affect some 18 million noncitizens and 9 million children who are U.S. citizens, as immigrants are forced to choose between necessary government support and permanent settlement. They also warn that the proposed rule change could give the Administration broad discretion to deny a larger number of potential immigrants, especially those with limited incomes and education levels. And this change could “significantly shift the U.S. legal immigration system away from family-based immigration without the involvement of Congress.”

A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 5.8 million U.S. citizen children with a noncitizen parent had Medicaid or CHIP coverage in 2016. They worried that “if the policy leads to disenrollment rates from 15% to 35%, an estimated 875,000 to 2 million citizen children” would lose care. Furthermore, the fear created by the policy change will not remain solely affected individuals, but could extend beyond into the community leading to greater disenrollment “fewer eligible individuals [enrolling] themselves and their children in health coverage.”

Their report also found that over two-thirds (67%) of U.S. citizen children with a noncitizen parent have family incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level, meaning fewer U.S. citizen children would get the care they need — or their families would be denied permanent status — if the rule takes effect.

Cities for Action, a bipartisan coalition of 175 mayors, warned that “ forcing immigrants and their families to make a choice between obtaining permanent residency and utilizing public programs that support health, nutrition, and economic security, this proposal would deal immigrant communities a harsh blow, particularly for the elderly and people with disabilities. It would stand to increase poverty and inequality among already vulnerable populations and damage our local economies.”

The policy change would also have a powerful symbolic effect contradicting the message on the Statue of Liberty; “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What can I do to help stop the proposed changes from taking effect?

The law is not finalized, and you can still speak up against the change to the “public charge” rule. By law, the Administration is required to read and respond to every comment before they can make final changes to the law. Up until December 10, you can comment on the Trump Administration’s cruel “public charge” proposal here.  

For more resources, visit Protecting Immigrant Families.