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What you need to know about Trump’s cruel “public charge” proposal

News & Commentary  |  By Peniel Ibe, Oct 5, 2018
Charlotte90T via FlickrCC

Immigrants could be denied green cards for using food assistance or Medicaid.  

The Trump administration has proposed another cruel change to immigration policy – one that would essentially punish immigrants with legal status and their families for using certain public benefits, like Medicaid or food stamps.

Public programs and services that promote public health and community well-being should be accessible to everyone. Fairness and compassion should never be dependent on a person’s race, ethnicity, or place of birth. 

But the Trump administration has proposed a change that alters how the government screens immigration applications and evaluates whether a person is “likely to become a public charge."

If the change is adopted, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could deem a larger number of immigrants likely to become a public charge - dependent on the government at any point in their lives – and reject their petitions for green cards. 

The change could intimidate immigrants from seeking the social services that are available to them. 

The new rule would affect a lot of people: people applying for adjustment of their immigration status or visas, and people applying to change or extend their status.  The proposal could ultimately reduce immigration of lower-income people from certain countries. It would also harm immigrants and their families who are already here. One in four U.S. children has an immigrant parent. Children who are American citizens with immigrant parents could be more likely to suffer the repercussions, especially if their parents are afraid to enroll in public benefits. 

This change is yet another way the Trump administration is working to slash immigration, threaten communities, and separate families – and we must do all that we can to stop it. 

Here’s what you need to know: 

What does “public charge” mean now? 

The term “public charge” isn’t new. Since the 19th century, immigration officials have rejected would-be immigrants if they decide a person likely to become dependent on the government for financial and material support. Since the 1990s, officials have made this determination based on  the person’s age, health, family status, financial status, education and skills, and other factors. 

Since 1999, officials have considered whether an immigrant has used certain government benefits, including cash assistance like Supplementary Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)or government-funded long-term institutional care. A person could be banned if they were found likely to depend on these public benefits.

What changes is the Trump administration proposing to the “public charge” rule? 

Trump is wants to radically expand the list of programs to consider when determining if an immigrant is likely to become a “public charge.”  In addition to considering use of cash assistance programs and long-term institutional care, the government could now deem a person likely to become a “public charge” if they use a broad range of social services. 

These include programs that provide food, health care, education, and shelter – basic human rights that all members of our communities should have, including: SNAP (food stamps), non-emergency Medicaid (with exceptions), Medicare Part D (low income subsidy), housing assistance (like Section 8 vouchers and public housing). DHS is also seeking input on whether to include the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as a determining benefit for a public charge.

Trump’s proposed change also requires immigrant families to meet a certain income threshold to counter what DHS considers “negative factors,” requiring a family of four to earn nearly $63,000 annually. Such income requirements would create an immigration system rigged for the wealthy, putting green cards up for sale to the highest bidder.

What would the rule mean for immigrant communities?

The proposed rule will force immigrant families to choose between their health and well-being and lawful immigration status: an impossible choice that harms everybody.  

If they access benefits, they may leave their family vulnerable to separation. Or they may forgo needed assistance. We know from the 1990s that when the public charge rule was implemented, the use of public benefits declined among immigrant communities. Experts anticipate this effect would be even worse in today’s hostile climate fostering fear in immigrant communities. 

And the change would affect many, many people. An estimated 47 percent of noncitizens live in families where at least one person has used the benefits in question. 

The rule will disproportionately target immigrants of color. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, 10.3 million Hispanic immigrants and 3.8 million Asian-American and Pacific Islander immigrants are in families in which one or more member received at least one of the public benefits included in the proposed rule. 

The proposed rule has another effect: making people more fearful. Because the Trump administration has signaled that it intends to penalize immigrant communities for seeking help when the need it, immigrants may be more afraid to use benefits — even ones that don’t jeopardize their immigration status.

How can you help? 

The ruling has not been finalized, and the proposal is now open to the public for comments. This is our chance to tell the Trump administration that we reject this rule because of its harmful impacts on our communities, especially immigrant women, families, and immigrants of color.

Click here to publicly comment on Trump’s proposed change. It’s titled “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds.”

Under federal law, the government must consider public comments before issuing a final rule. That’s why we need you to submit yours now. A flood of comments can slow down the process, shape the administration’s decisions, and show how many people care. 

Tell the government to reject any regulation that would punish immigrants for accessing needed services. Use your own words and write from your own values. Here are some things to keep in mind:  

  • This rule will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable in our society, including children, pregnant women, older adults, and families living paycheck to paycheck.  
  • Families shouldn’t have to choose between basic human rights and staying together.  
  • The rule unfairly target immigrants of color in our community 
  • We all benefit when all members of our communities have enough to eat, access to health care, and safe housing. 

Comments must be submitted by Dec. 10.

This change is yet another way the Trump administration is working to slash immigration, threaten communities, and separate families.

Join AFSC and individuals and communities across the country in doing all that we can to stop it.



How to talk about Trump's public charge proposal – and take action to stop it

Read AFSC's public comment on the "public charge" proposal.

About the Author

Peniel is the policy associate at AFSC. She is interested in international development, humanitarian crisis management and public policy. She is an immigrant from Nigeria who recently relocated to the United States and is advocating for the rights of others like her.