Jonathan Weiss /

Analysis: Trump’s DHS Aims to Scare Immigrants Away From Public Benefits

The Trump administration announced changes to the “public charge” rule that will prevent immigrants who access government services from staying in the U.S.

In a move that could curb legal immigration into the U.S. and deter millions of immigrants already in the country from accessing public health, housing, and food assistance benefits, the Homeland Security Department announced a change to the “public charge” rule on Monday.

The government already has measures in place to block people who may become dependent on government services—potential public charges—from entering the country, but DHS’s new rule would make the requirements even more stringent. Immigrants who receive food stamps, Section 8 housing assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid, and parts of Medicare could be denied green cards, visa extensions and immigration status changes.

The rule casts a wide net, applying to both legal and undocumented immigrants who are currently dependent on public benefits and those who government officials deem at risk of becoming dependent at any point in the future. Of the nearly 550,000 people who apply for green cards on average each year, 380,000 are immigrants who attempt to change their status each year and could fall into these newly at-risk categories, according to the Federal Register.

Immigrant advocates and lawyers fear that not only will the rule change limit opportunities for the lowest-income, less-educated, or non- English-speaking immigrants to become naturalized citizens, it will force many others to make the choice between health and stability, and citizenship. Researchers estimate that regardless of eligibility, 26 million immigrants could drop out of benefits programs rather than risk deportation. Many families have already made that choice, driven by anxieties that the rule would be revised.

Documents leaked early in Trump’s term showed he was considering broadening the public charge rule’s scope, and in October 2018, a draft version of new public charge eligibility requirements was released. It triggered a chilling effect that repelled immigrant families from public spaces and discouraged them from interacting with public services in the months since.

According to an Urban Institute report published last month, one in seven immigrant adults in mixed-status and fully-documented families reported that they or a family member avoided benefit programs like the ones covered under the public charge rule. A follow-up report featuring interviews with 25 immigrants found that SNAP and Medicaid were the services most commonly avoided.

“Emotionally, it’s almost always the case that people are afraid,” one interviewee told the Urban Institute. “They’re afraid of doing things that will have negative consequences.”

The final public charge rule, which will be officially published on Wednesday and will take effect 60 days later, has evolved slightly from the October draft, after more than 200,000 people submitted comments decrying the proposal. The list of public benefits that could prove grounds for denying a green card no longer includes Medicaid coverage for children under 21, pregnant women, or women up to 60 days after pregnancy; seniors receiving Medicaid Part D discounts are also excluded.

But non-citizens who access—or are likely to access—any combination of the other eligible public benefits for more than 12 months out of any 36-month period could be denied entry into the country. But, as Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services said in the press conference Monday afternoon, “Receipt of two different benefits in one months counts as two months.” Thus, if more than one benefit is accessed in one month, each will count as an additional month. (For example, if a child uses SNAP and Section 8 in one month, they’ve used two months’ worth of benefits.)

At the press conference, Cuccinelli said that with the new rule, the government hopes to attract more “self-sufficient” people to the country. “Throughout our history, self-reliance has been a core principle in America,” he said. “As President Trump delivers on his promise to uphold the rule of law, this administration is promoting our shared history, and encouraging the core values needed to make the American dream a reality.”

Immigration advocates and lawyers saw his statement, and the guidelines of the rule itself, as a clear admission that the U.S. is furthering an immigration agenda biased by class, ethnicity, and race.

“From our perspective, this iteration of this rule had technically always had been about curbing legal immigration to this country,” said Carlos Guevara, the executive director of the immigration advocacy group UnidosUS. “While we’re certainly concerned about the impact on American children in particular—many of whom are of Latino background—we want to name it: This is really about a retrograde vision that some of this administration has about what America and Americans should look like.”

Latino communities are on high alert, and one in 20 black people in the U.S. could also be potentially affected, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) estimated. “Trump’s new Public Charge rule is about more than mere immigration policy—it is about the whitening of America,” said Nana Gyamfi, BAJI’s executive director, in a statement. “Black immigrants and refugees already face extremely high poverty, unemployment, and deportation rate. This policy will have a devastating effect on our communities.” There are 1.8 million black immigrants in the U.S.

Age and education will also be taken into account under the new rule, which could allow the government to preference working-age and highly-educated newcomers. This reflects a pivot away from one definition of the American dream, says Hasan Shafiqullah, the attorney-in-charge at the Immigration Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society: For people of more modest means who want to reunite their families in America and build a life here, DHS is taking away one more path. “If you’re wealthy, from English-speaking countries, of working age, then our doors are open to you,” he said. “And otherwise, not as much.”

That represents “a dark vision for our country,” says Shelby Gonzales, the director of immigration policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan think tank. “There’s a lot of research to show that immigrants themselves contribute to our economy often doing work that is important in our communities but lower paid. And their children do quite well—they show significant upward mobility and will contribute to society in lots of different ways for years to come.”

Non-citizens make up a fraction of those getting Medicaid and food assistance: 6.5 percent and 8.8 percent, respectively, according to the Associated Press.

The rule isn’t retroactive, meaning immigrants who have used public benefits like housing assistance in past years and months won’t have that counted against them. But by expanding the definition of “public charge” to include all people with the potential to become one, advocates fear immigration authorities will be given wide discretion over enforcement.

“[It] leans into the territory of presumptions of denial that I think are intended in some ways to bind the hands of the adjudicators and direct them to deny in certain cases,” said Guevara of UnidosUS. One criteria for determining eligibility will be income: If families earn less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $64,375 for a family of four, they would be denied entry—even if they don’t use any public benefits.

More than 8 million children could forego benefits like Medicaid, Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and SNAP benefits under a public charge rule like this, according to a recent American Medical Association Pediatrics study cited by Roll Call.

“As low-income immigrant families lose access to needed housing assistance, they will face increased risk of eviction and homelessness, with tremendous personal and societal costs from the poorer health, lowered educational attainment and lessened lifetime earnings that will result,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, in a statement.

Immigration advocates and lawyers warn that there’s no reason for immigrants to un-enroll from federal programs yet, especially not before having their personal eligibility requirements assessed by an immigration expert. Asylees, refugees, victims of domestic violence and “extreme cruelty,” and certain U-Visa holders cannot be denied green cards based on public charge eligibility, for example. And besides a few exceptions, those who have already been granted green cards can’t have them taken away based on past or future receipt of government benefits. Immigrants who are considered at-risk have until October 15 to dis-enroll before the change takes full effect.

But if the cruelty is the point, as Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic, the wonkiness is, too: “Talking people down from dis-enrollment has been really challenging because of the climate of fear,” said Shafiqullah.

When President Bill Clinton implemented changes to the century-old public charge rule in the late 1990s, a similar sense of confusion pervaded. Unsure over whether using Medicaid and SNAP would disqualify them from citizenship, immigrants dis-enrolled en masse:“[I[n 1999, only 40 percent of eligible citizen children living in households with immigrants participated in SNAP, compared to 70 percent of all eligible children,” wrote Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in a statement last September.

“To allay this fear and confusion, the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations clarified the public charge rules and undertook outreach in immigrant communities, and program participation rates subsequently rose back for eligible children in immigrant families,” he continued. “To say the least, comparable efforts by the current Administration seem very unlikely.”

Guevara says immigrant advocates have worked for decades to educate and repair the damage done. “This seems to set us back about 23 years.”

But the latest public charge change also fits into a more modern, ongoing campaign against immigrant families using public assistance in the U.S. that’s accelerated in recent years. In April, the Department of Housing and Urban Development declared it would start evictingmixed-status immigrant families from public housing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture later released a plan to do the same.“Families [were put] in a situation where they would have to make an impossible decision: whether they’d split apart the family, or just forego that assistance,” said Gonzales.

And in a month in which Latinos were gunned down in El Paso in a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism and an ICE raid at a Mississippi food plant led to more than 650 arrests, the Legal Aid Society’s Shafiqullah says this rule stings especially sharply. “It’s all about putting immigrants on notice that the Trump administration wants them out,” he said. “Just like [Trump] did with the four congresswomen: You’re not welcome here. Go back to where you came from.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said the nutritional assistance program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) was a benefit subject to penalization in the new public-charge requirements. It is not.