Explaining Public Charge, and Its Impact on Immigrants Living in the US

Public charge is a law that determines ineligibility for lawful permanent residency and inadmissibility to the United States, based on an individual’s ability to provide for themselves and their families. Generally, this rule ensures that a person is able to provide for themselves currently and in the future, and will not become a ward – or charge – of the government. Current public charge rules for immigrants seeking to adjust status only apply to those who extensively participate in programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or state cash assistance programs. Immigration officials also determine whether someone is a public charge based on a host of other factors, based on their current and future ability to provide for themselves.   

In October 2018, the Director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Lee Cissna, proposed new changes to the current public charge ruling and requirements. At present, the proposed changes to the public charge ruling redefines the programs used to determine if someone is a public charge. This means, that if anyone were to rely on additional public benefits programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, and Medicare Part D, they are subject to ineligibility due to their status as a public charge. The proposed changes also subject immigrants and their family members to a “public charge test” which determines how well an immigrant applicant can speak, read, and write in English.

However, the proposed rule is not current law in the United States. Before the government can finalize the proposed changes, they must review the more than 266,000 comments submitted on the ruling, as well as a congressional review. While the proposed rules have not been written into law, the announcement of the ruling has already created significant changes in how immigrants access and use their benefits. 

(Photo:  LA Opinion )

(Photo: LA Opinion)

Immigrant advocacy groups have seen how this ruling affects their clients and communities; the Urban Institute reported 13.7% immigrant adults did not participate in their noncash benefits programs, because they are afraid they will be deported or denied their green cards. This means that these individuals did not apply for benefits, or they elected to drop out of their Medicaid, SNAP, or Medicare Part D programs. By not participating in these programs, immigrants are denying themselves preventative healthcare and access to healthy and nutritional foods. 

The proposed changes in public charge do not only affect immigrant adults. Immigrant families, elderly immigrants, and immigrants with U.S. citizen children are also impacted by these proposed changes. In fact, researchers have seen a 20% decline in WIC enrollments; this program is designed to help low-income mothers provide food for their babies and infants. By dropping out of this program, immigrant families cannot provide nutritious and healthy foods for their infants and children, who are often U.S. Citizens. These children and infants will be more likely to experience malnutrition, which will have long-term effects on their physical and mental growth. However, the immigrant parents do not want to risk their family’s ability to stay in the country due to fears of deportation.  

The government asserts that these changes in the rule will encourage immigrants and their families to become self-sufficient; through hard work, they will not need to rely on public benefits. However, this rule perpetuates systemic discriminatory practices on low-income immigrant families. By passing this rule into law, the government ensures that immigrant communities, especially those from countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, will forgo the aid that they need in order to receive their green-cards. 

In doing this, immigrant families will struggle socioeconomically, relying only on minimum wage income to pay for doctors’ visits, food, and their housing, along with other utilities and costs associated with daily living. If the rule passes, immigrant families will be stuck in a cycle of poverty, since they will have to work multiple jobs to support their families, since they do not have access to benefits. Public benefit programs are specifically designed to help working families without forcing them to decide if between rent, medicine or food, regardless of immigration status. However, with the proposed changes, immigrants must now decide between their immigration status or a healthy life. 

Immigrant families should not be vilified for dropping out of public benefit programs. Their actions are perpetuated by confusion – while many non-profits and community based organizations continuously provide education to immigrants – other factors contribute to the confusion. Misinformation in the community, the news, and distress from the current political climate propels immigrants into dropping out of their public benefits programs. However, since this rule has not been passed into law, immigrants can and should continue their benefits. Only if the ruling goes into effect, they will have up to a year to participate in programs such as Medicaid and SNAP before they are deemed a public charge. Regardless, the proposed changes to public charge are drastic, damaging, and harmful, and if they are passed, the ramifications will be worse. We have an obligation to provide basic human services to legal immigrants. 

In the 1880s, Emma Lazarus, a New York poet and refugee activist, wrote: “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This was later inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which has greeted millions of immigrants and refugees over the decades. Immigrants come to this country seeking a better life; the government should not prevent the nation’s most vulnerable immigrants by forcing them to choose between immigrant status or their health and wellbeing.