Public Charge Rule: A Chilling Effect for Immigrant Families

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published proposed changes to the public charge rule, a provision in the Immigration and Nationality Act, that would drastically impact mixed-status families and individuals seeking legal permanent residency (LPR). The new rule, expected to take effect on October 15, 2019, would include previously excluded healthcare, nutritional, and housing programs such as non-emergency Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Section 8 housing which would expand the considerations in public charge determinations. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency defends the new changes, arguing that they promote “self-sufficiency and personal responsibility,” consistent with American values. However, this statement dismisses the subjective nature of ‘the American Dream’ by oversimplifying and ignoring the myriad complexities of the immigrant experience. 

Under current immigration law, ‘public charge is a term used to refer to someone who is dependent on the government for support such as utilizing cash assistance programs (TANF/SSI) and long term institutional care. When a legal permanent resident returns to the U.S. after being abroad for more than 180 days or attempts to adjust the status of their legal permanent residency or an individual seeks to apply for entry into the U.S., immigration officers use a ‘totality of circumstances’ test that examines various factors to determine whether or not the individual will be reliant on government benefits. These factors include age, health, family status, financial standing, education level, employment skills, and the “affidavit of support” filed by their sponsor. Although the new public charge rule does not apply to certain immigrant groups, such as survivors of human trafficking or refugees, it nonetheless advances this administration’s goal of establishing a merit-based immigration system that will disproportionately affect immigrants from Latin America countries and instead favor those from European countries. 

While the new rule is currently being challenged in court which can either slow down the implementation of it or strike down the rule altogether, fear and confusion have already produced a chilling effect among mixed-status families and legal permanent residents. For example, immigrant parents are already disenrolling their U.S.-born children from Medicaid and food assistance programs-essentially jeopardizing the health and well-being of their families. Moreover, green card and visa applicants could be rejected via additional scrutinizing factors such as limited English proficiency, low educational attainment, and reduced income levels, therefore facilitating and prolonging the separation of families. 

The proposed changes to the public charge rule will punish immigrant families and threaten the pathway to citizenship by coercing them into dis-enrolling and disengaging from government assistance programs to avoid immigration-related consequences thus leading to housing instability, food insecurity, and long-term health complications. For more information on how to advocate for policy solutions that reduce and mitigate the harmful effects of this rule visit: https://protectingimmigrantfamilies.org/ 

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Rocio Perez

Rocio Perez is a first-generation recent graduate of the University of California-Davis. Growing up in a low-income and predominantly undocumented community, Rocio learned how to navigate education, legal, and health barriers that influenced her public service career. She has experience across various issue areas including health policy, labor rights, and immigration reform –with an emphasis on Latin American migration. Throughout her professional career, Rocio has staffed a bill aimed at protecting low-income workers under CalFresh and CalWORKs, provided post-release services to Central American unaccompanied minors on behalf of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and contributed to detention research by the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ) to successfully advocate for $4.7 million in state funding for deportation defense services. As HSF and CHCI Alumni, Rocio values and communicates the importance of pursuing an education to first-generation students of color to exercise their potential in achieving their goals. In the future, Rocio plans to pursue a Master’s in Public Policy to continue her commitment to protecting and defending immigrant rights.