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Change In “Public Charge” May Impact Immigrant Families

In what seems like an already overwhelming wave of anti-immigrant policies, our immigrant neighbors are up against one more. A new proposed policy would redefine the way that the government determines whether an individual or family is likely to become a “public charge”.

The understanding of the outdated term, “public charge”, comes from the 1903 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 212 of the INA states that “any person who is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible”. An individual is labeled a “public charge” if they are likely to become primarily dependent on the government for support. The programs currently considered when assessing public charge include cash assistance such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and long term institutional care.

Section 237 of the INA states that a person who has become a public charge during their first five years in the United States can be deported. An immigrant would only be considered a public charge if they did not pay back a public benefit that requires repayment. Historically, deportation based off public charge is extremely rare.

The new guidelines for assessing public charge offered by the Trump administration would shift the focus for the determination from its current state of “who is likely to become primarily dependent on public benefits?” to “who is likely to receive a public benefit at any point?”

The new policy would also significantly expand the list of programs considered when assessing public charge. These include but are not limited to Medicaid; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (colloquially known as food stamps); Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); State Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP); housing assistance; energy benefits such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program; and the earned income tax credit.

This policy would not apply to refugees, asylees, and victims of human trafficking and domestic violence. Public charge assessment would also apply only to people applying for a green card. Those applying to become a citizen would not be assessed for public charge determination.

With such a wide range of public benefits being considered in the new policy, immigrant families, including citizen children, are very likely to pass up public benefit programs despite being eligible to receive them out of fear of deportation. Immigrant families have started and will continue to disenroll their citizen children from public benefits that they are eligible for. Not using these benefits will not only affect immigrant families but also abandon the well-established policy consideration that access to public benefits is good for all of society.

The Kaiser Family Foundation completed research on the anticipated negative public effects of Medicaid/CHIP disenrollment rates ranging from 15-35%. They found that an “estimated 875,000 to 2 million citizen children with a noncitizen parent would become uninsured” and “the uninsured rate of citizen children with noncitizen parents would increase from 8% to between 14% and 22%”. Such dramatic increase in the number of uninsured children and families would negatively impact the financial stability of families as well as local governments and services. For example, families may choose to disenroll from Medicaid due to fear of this new policy. Therefore, when there is a medical emergency they will enter local emergency rooms uninsured. Not able to deny treatment in the emergency room, the hospitals will be responsible for covering the cost of the uninsured child or family.

With fear of our proposed government policies causing people to pass up their right to public benefits, it is our responsibility to stand up and speak out against the unjust policy that again puts immigrants and their families under attack. The draft of the policy has been submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for review and could be formally published any day, which would open a 60 day comment period in response to the proposed rules.

During this period, it is important that you submit comments opposing the policy as well as educate others on the proposed public charge rules and encourage them to submit their own comments. For updates on when the comment period opens, sign up for IJPC emails here and watch our Facebook and Twitter pages.