“Public Charge” is not just anti-immigrant, it’s anti-family

Written by Ly Huynh, MSW intern

Image credit: Shaina Lu (http://shainadoesart.com)

On February 24, 2020 the new ruling of public charge went into effect. The rule impacts people who are seeking green cards, the legal document that allows a person to become a Lawful Permanent Resident. People are considered a public charge when they use “too many” public benefits and are considered dependent on government services for everyday living. The recent changes to the rule name new public benefits which, if used, would count against an applicant. This is in addition to a more intense assessment process of someone’s socioeconomic standing. Advocates nationwide worry that the ruling will decrease the number of new green card holders, and that confusion over the rule will scare people away from using their legally entitled benefits.

In writing this piece, I can’t help but think of my mother and grandparents who immigrated through a family sponsor. … Had the public charge rule been in place in the 1980s, it is likely that she and my grandparents would be denied green cards and would never have become the citizens as they are today.

In writing this piece, I can’t help but think of my mother and grandparents who immigrated through a family sponsor. When my mother arrived in the US at the age of 14, she was nearly deaf from conditions in war-torn Vietnam. Medical intervention restored her hearing and while she learned English, her aging parents never did. They relied on food stamps and odd jobs for a time until my mom graduated high school and found steady employment to keep the family afloat. Had the public charge rule been in place in the 1980s, it is likely that she and my grandparents would be denied green cards and would never have become citizens, as they are today.

Before the February 2020 change on the rule, there were only two types of benefits that would earn someone status as a public charge. The first was cash benefits, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). The second was long-term institutionalization at the government’s expense. Now, the new policy says certain groups of immigrants who are using one or more federally funded public benefits for 12 months or more are considered a public charge. This means they lose their chance at getting a green card.

Charge worthy benefits now include federally funded non-cash assistance programs such as Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing vouchers, and other forms of public support. Under this rule, if someone is enrolled in more than one benefit, each additional benefit stacks against them as another month – meaning that someone using two services at the same time would gain the public charge status in 6 months rather than 12.

Here’s the big kicker: The vast majority of immigrants affected by the new rule were never eligible for these benefits in the first place. For example, for someone to receive a housing voucher, the applicant is required to already be a permanent citizen. For immigrants with family members who are U.S. citizens, their family’s legal use of federally funded public benefits does not count toward the individual’s own status of becoming a public charge.

Additionally, the rule excludes refugees, asylees, certain nonimmigrant visas (human trafficking and crime victims), and petitions under the Violence Against Women Act. The rule only applies to people who are applying for their green card on or after February 24, 2020. Many programs, such as WIC (Women, Infants & Children), CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), free and reduced-price school lunch, food banks, shelters, childcare assistance, Medicaid of pregnant women and children, and any state/local non-cash benefits do not count toward being a charge.

So, if the changes about benefits do not apply to most applicants, why is the ruling driving 13 states, including Washington, to sue the federal government in opposition? 

First is the “chilling effect,” which has already seen record rates of decreased enrollments in non-related public benefit programs. “Chilling effect” refers to the discouragement of exercising legitimate rights due to fear of legal penalty. In this case, many immigrants are withdrawing from public services that they are legally entitled to in fear that using such services will impact their ability to obtain a green card. This is happening despite the fact that the services many people are dropping are not the ones that would cause them to become labeled a public charge. For example, some are disenrolling their children from CHIP or choosing not to get on Medicaid when pregnant. Even before the rule was implemented, rumors of the rule saw a mass wave of missed or cancelled appointments at community health clinics. Many opponents of public charge feel that the messaging about the rule was purposively vague in order to intimidate people from continuing their use of any benefit including those are that not under speculation.

Secondly is a new test which assesses whether someone may become a public charge in the future by looking at six conditions:

  • Age
  • Health
  • Family Status
  • Assets, Resources and Financial Status
  • Education and Skills
  • Affidavit of Support

Immigration officials see certain factors as causing someone to be more likely to use public benefits in the future. Being under 18 or over 61 is a negative factor as these age groups are considered less employable. Having any sort of health condition is another negative. The rule does not specify what types of health conditions would be considered negatively, which is frightening due to its implication that deciding officials could consider anything from asthma to heart disease as a consideration to bar someone from becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident. This is particularly damaging and ableist in practice as the assessment devalues the lives of people with disabilities and may deter people from accessing important health care. These are just two factors. Having a larger family is negative, making an income less than 125% lower than the federal poverty is another negative. Language and English proficiency will be on the test for the first time as well. See this list on the CLINIC for detailed explanations on the topic.

These rules are drastically capitalistic in nature and tie an individual’s worth to their ability to work, rather than their dignity as a human being or without considering their purpose for immigrating or their family connections. After all, the majority of those impacted by this rule will be those who are sponsored by family, which make up 65 percent of all new green card grantees. This means that many families who have been working hard for years to reunite with loved ones, are separated indefinitely by this public charge rule. These new barriers target Communities of Color and other marginalized applicants who are low-income in what many are calling a wealth test.

This new rule put forth by the Trump administration is racist, classist and xenophobic. We already know what the president thinks about non-white immigrants, heard in his 2018 remark about not wanting immigrants from “sh*thole countries,” and his Game of Thrones-esque obsession over “The Wall.”  The change to public charge only furthers anti-immigrant sentiment and targets family reunification. In the words of Representative Pramila Jayapal, “This regulation is another anti-immigrant, racially and economically discriminatory policy with a clear message that if you’re not white and rich, you’re not welcome in America.”

Public charge is not just anti-immigrant, it’s anti-family. It’s time for the federal government to stop bullying people who use social safety net programs and instead give them the support they deserve to grow.


Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

Protecting Immigrant Families

Public Charge and COVID-19 FAQ Sheet

Public Charge Information Workshop for Service Providers

Public Charge Toolkit

National Housing Low Income Housing Coalition Memo on Public Charge

National Immigrant Legal Services Directory

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