Changes to “public charge” policy could threaten federal assistance for immigrant families

Lakshmi Premysler, RESULTS intern
July 30, 2018

The Trump administration may soon propose changes to immigration rules that would create a stark new reality for immigrant beneficiaries of social assistance programs. Participation in public assistance programs, including by citizen children, could mean losing the ability to become a permanent resident in the U.S. This would change what is known as the “public charge” rule and pose new barriers to immigrants who receive critical services and assistance.

The “public charge” rule has been part of American history since the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It has long been the case that if somebody was primarily dependent on public assistance, he or she could be considered a "public charge" and not be allowed permanent residency status (green card) or improve their immigration status in the U.S. However, what the administration is proposing is to expand the number of assistance programs that can be used to count against an immigrant looking to attain permanent residency. This proposal stands to deprive many immigrants of access to the safety net that has been available to them in the form of health care and nutrition assistance. These safety net programs, relied upon by hard working, low-income immigrant families primarily for the benefit of their citizen children, have not been held against them by past administrations, Democrat or Republican, for several decades. But the current administration wants to change that.

Under leaked versions of the administration's proposal, a person could be considered a "public charge" even if they themselves are not using benefits — but at least one person in their immediate family is, including their citizen children. As a result of this change (which would not be retroactive if enacted), immigrants would face a horrific choice between ensuring that their children have all the benefits available to them to live healthy lives or depriving their children of those benefits in order to improve the chances that they and their immediate relatives will be able attain legal permanent residency status. The proposal would take effect in two main ways. First, immigration authorities could refuse immigrants or their immediate family members from entering the U.S if they need assistance. Second, parents who have U.S. citizen children may make the difficult decision to forgo benefits and tax credits for which they are eligible.

Among the benefits that would now put a person at risk of being deemed a "public charge" are the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC); the Child Tax Credit (CTC); Medicaid; Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Affordable Care Act subsidies (ACA); SNAP; and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). The administration’s proposal serves to frighten people and is already deterring families from relying on these benefits. It could potentially put an entire generation of American kids at a disadvantage that will have long term consequences for their well-being and their futures.

If you are interested in learning more about the efforts to stop these damaging changes to “public charge” or what it could mean, visit the Protecting Immigrant Families resources page: https://www.clasp.org/protecting-immigrant-families-campaign-resources. RESULTS is working with coalition partners to monitor the situation and will alert our network if/when the proposal is released.