The Department of Homeland Security officially published a change to what’s known as the “public charge” rule on Monday that would make it much harder to apply for a green card or earn a visa. The new policy, which is set to go into effect in mid-October, expands the definition of what would make an applicant likely to become a “public charge,” someone who the government has deemed would be dependent on it, thus rendering them ineligible for legal permanent residency status.
In October 2018, the DHS released its proposal for expanding the criteria for what constitutes a “public charge” to include those receiving non-cash government services, like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), when evaluating applications for visas and legal permanent residency. Currently, people are generally only considered public charges if they use cash assistance or long-term institutional care the government is funding.
The rule change also creates other factors to be weighed in consideration of the “totality of circumstances” aspect of the rule when evaluating green cards and visa applications including English proficiency, income level and health conditions. (Refugees and asylum-seekers, among others, are exempted from the rule.)
After the release of the DHS proposal, the rule went through a 60-day public comment period, during which the department received over 260,000 comments about the proposal. It reached the desk of the Office of Management and Budget on July 12.
Currently, the limited public charge definition means the regulation is not often used to justify the rejection of an application.
The administration is purporting to solve the “the alleged but illusory problem that immigrants are eating up taxpayer funds,” said Doug Rand, an Obama administration veteran who co-founded Boundless Immigration, a technology company that helps immigrants get green cards and citizenship. Rand added the change “makes no sense,” as undocumented immigrants are not allowed to access federal public benefits. He also said that the proposal was the administration’s effort at making “profound” changes to the immigration system without congressional approval.
A study released in July found that 8.3 million children, most of whom are citizens, enrolled in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program or SNAP are at potential risk of being disenrolled, with more than 5 million of those children having specific medical needs. The researchers predict that between nearly 1 and 2 million children with specific medical needs will ultimately be disenrolled as a result of the rule change.
The rule’s public benefits component will not be applied retroactively, meaning those seeking green cards and visas who were enrolled in these public benefits programs before the rule was enacted will not be penalized for it.
The English proficiency criteria “privileges people from certain countries where English is already spoken,” according to Jackie Vimo, a policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center.
The change to the public charge is one of multiple instances of the Trump administration attempting to change immigration policy without having to go through Congress. There’s also the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s proposal released on May 10 to halt eligibility for families with members holding different immigration statuses, or “mixed-status” families, in public and Section 8 housing, as well as other changes to the public charge rule and its enforcement.
Together, these changes “turn our immigration system into green cards for the highest bidder,” Vimo said.
While only those seeking green cards and visas are impacted by the rule, experts warn of a “chilling effect” that will prompt eligible immigrants to unenroll in government services. The chilling effect has already begun due to the fear generated by the proposal, ever since the idea was first reported on in February 2018.
A study from May found that one in seven adults in immigrant families have avoided public benefits programs, including some who would not be affected by the rule.
Rand believes that the “chilling effect is part of the intent.”
“A very large number of people are likely to disenroll from public benefits from which they are perfectly entitled under U.S. law,” he said.
In a letter sent July 24 obtained by HuffPost, 18 state attorneys general, spearheaded by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D), claimed the Department of Homeland Security “entirely failed” in their estimation of the cost of their proposed public charge rule change. The lawmakers requested a meeting with the agency to further discuss the officials’ “significant concerns about the severe impact” of the proposed rule on their residents. They argue the rules would cause “extensive injury” to the economies of their states and to their states’ residents — it would cause loss of health insurance, medical access, and food and cash benefits.
“If implemented as proposed, the rules will result in a reduction of total economic output, a drop in workers’ wages, and elimination of jobs in our states,” the attorneys general wrote. The OMB did not accept their request for a meeting.
Ferguson told HuffPost that they are “exploring our legal options” and “actively preparing for a potential lawsuit” and that he is “confident you’ll see litigation from the states on the matter.”
The city of Baltimore and nonprofit public policy organization Democracy Forward sued President Donald Trump and the Department of State in November 2018 for their attempt to alter the public charge rules. They argued the Trump administration moved forward with its plans despite understanding that the rule change would deter lawfully present immigrants and naturalized citizens from obtaining the services they need and are eligible for.