A Trump Administration Proposal Is Scaring Immigrant Families Away From Public Benefits

The pending rule changes, which will affect green card and visa applicants, are already hurting people, a new study found.

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to a regulation affecting green card and visa applications have prompted immigrants to forgo accessing public benefits, according to an Urban Institute study released on Wednesday.

The latest study takes a deeper dive into the impact of those widely discussed changes even before they’ve gone into effect. It provides further evidence that fear and uncertainty around the proposed rule is hurting people not covered by the changes. For instance, it describes one green card holder who hopes to become a citizen: She not only chose not to receive food benefits herself but persuaded her son, a naturalized citizen, to unenroll.

In October, the Department of Homeland Security proposed new standards for the so-called “public charge” rule, a test applied to green card and temporary visa applicants that evaluates whether an applicant would “likely” become “primarily dependent on the government.”

The public charge proposal sits at the nexus of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-welfare agendas, which have included efforts to make it harder to receive asylum in the U.S. and proposed cutbacks to federal nutrition assistance for poor people.

Currently, the definition of a public charge for purposes of evaluating visa and green card applicants is narrow: someone who receives cash assistance from a limited number of government programs or is institutionalized long term with the government paying for it. The new rule would drastically expand the public benefits considered to include non-cash assistance, like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and it would introduce new criteria such as an English proficiency test and an income requirement.

The proposal made its way past the Office of Management and Budget on July 31 and could be finalized any day now. Once it’s published, it will go into effect after 60 days ― and will likely be met with litigation.

The Urban Institute wrote in May that 1 in 7 adults in immigrant families surveyed online in December 2018 reported eschewing public benefits because they feared hurting their chances of obtaining a green card, which confers permanent legal status. The researchers found that the “chilling effects” of the proposed rule change were even impacting households where every noncitizen family member already had a green card.

The newer study helps “flesh out what the stakes are” for families avoiding public assistance and “can also help inform policymakers and stakeholders about the needs of immigrant families now and how they might help them,” said Hamutal Bernstein, a researcher on the study and a senior research associate at the institute.

The Urban Institute’s results came from followup phone interviews with 25 of the respondents from the December survey who had reported chilling effects.

The Department of Homeland Security's proposed changes to the public charge rule are already causing adults in immigrant families to avoid public benefits, according to a new study from the Urban Institute.
The Department of Homeland Security's proposed changes to the public charge rule are already causing adults in immigrant families to avoid public benefits, according to a new study from the Urban Institute.
Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

The respondents most frequently reported avoiding or unenrolling from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (commonly known as food stamps) and Medicaid health benefits. They were most likely to say they’d learned about the rule change from news media, although some reported hearing about it from family and friends or social media. Few said they were seeking legal or other professional advice.

The decision to avoid or unenroll from public benefits, researchers found, led to financial difficulties, as well as emotional, mental and physical health problems. Participants in the study reported serious consequences such as rising debt, alterations to their diet to accommodate less access to food, and avoidance of medical treatment, including for chronic health conditions.

The participants, including those who would not be directly affected by the rule change, said they were avoiding public assistance due to confusion about the change and fear in the current anti-immigrant political climate.

The study found multiple misconceptions about the rule change, according to Bernstein, including that it would impact citizenship applications, that programs not included even under the expanded rule would be included (like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), and that U.S. citizen children’s receipt of benefits could impact their parents’ immigration applications.

The interview pool had a “wide range” of people, Bernstein said, including H-1B visa holders waiting for a green card, people with green cards, people with Temporary Protected Status, asylum-seekers, graduate students on student visas, and U.S.-born spouses of immigrants.

The variety of people impacted by the proposed rule highlights that “the immigration system is so central for so many people in the United States, and it shapes their ability to live their lives and plan for their and their children’s future,” Bernstein said.

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