Challenges to ‘Public Charge’ Rule Mount as Migrants Prepare for Change

Immigrants hope legal challenges will prevail but continue to prepare for October 15, when the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule changes take effect.

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to the “public charge” rule, scheduled to take effect October 15, have been under legal attack since the change was announced in August.

Among these challenges: a coalition of community groups in California filed suit in that state’s federal court; organizations in Homestead, Florida; San Juan, Texas; and Queens, New York, joined with the ACLU to file a federal suit in the District of Columbia; and a group of New York organizations represented by the Legal Aid Society, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the law firm Paul Weiss, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and more recently filed a preliminary injunction to stop it taking effect.

But it’s not just community organizations that are raising legal challenges; New York City has joined the state of New York and 15 other state attorney generals in filing injunctions against the rule, while last week, two Democratic senators, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, introduced the “Protect American Values Act,” legislation that would block the adapted rule, and is co-sponsored by 25 additional senators.

Immigrants deemed a public charge are prevented from obtaining a green card or permanent residency. If the changes go through, they will redefine what is known as a “public charge” to include migrants receiving a multitude of public benefits such as Medicaid, SNAP, and Section 8 vouchers, then tabulate the frequency such services are accessed within a certain time period as basis for denial.

“It is immoral to penalize immigrants for low wages or disability, and the court should block the rule before it goes into effect,” said Ghita Schwarz, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in a statement.

“This rule redefines the term that has been understood to have a very narrow meaning for over 100 years, that only people who are incapable of taking care of themselves on their own are not allowed to get green cards,” Susan Welber, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, told amNewYork. “This rule says even if you’re working full time but maybe your English isn’t proficient or you have receive Medicaid because your job doesn’t offer you health care, then you’re not welcome here—that’s in a nutshell what it is, and that’s illegal.”

But with less than a month to go before the changes could go into effect, on the ground, migrant support organizations are handling the fallout and preparing for the change. At the same time, despite the atmosphere of fear that the announcement has created, Queens communities are determined to fight back.      

Make the Road New York, a plaintiff in the ACLU’s filing and the New York lawsuit, is a non-profit organization supporting immigrant rights with a base in Queens, the most diverse borough in the country, where more than 47 percent of the population is born outside the U.S. and the proposed changes to the “public charge” rule are causing widespread angst and anger.

“As an organization that serves a large immigrant population, many of whom are immigrants from Latin America and accesses public benefits, we have been seeing the impact of this rule on our communities. We've been having a lot of people come in with questions,” said Becca Telzak, director of health programs at Make the Road New York, who said they had held numerous forums to help people understand the rule changes and other policies of the Trump administration.

“This is a huge attack on our communities. It’s the federal government’s way to say who can enter the country, who can get a green card and who shouldn't,”said Telzak. “We think it’s a horrific rule and we want to do everything we can as an organization to fight back against this.”    

During a town hall event held in Queens Borough Hall last week, Ibrahim Khan, chief of staff for New York Attorney General Letitia James, called out the new rule for being a racist policy that would rip apart the very fabric of Queens communities. “We know this new rule is a thinly-veiled effort by the Trump administration to limit lawful immigration of people of color. These are individuals who have lived in our communities for years, who give back to our city, and who work every day to make a better life for themselves and their families,” he said. “Their history is New York history, and they are no different than you or me. While this rule would clearly impact immigrants and so many Queens residents, it will also have far-reaching impacts on all of our communities and our entire city and state.”

Telzak believes that the new rule change is a blatant attack on poor people. “We refer to the new rule as a wealth test, where it's really an attack on low-income immigrants and it's kinda like another way the federal administration is trying to limit and control who can enter the country.”

On the ground, community groups have been mobilizing to educate people about the plan as well as counter the xenophobic narrative around immigrants. “We want to show that Jackson Heights is one of the leading communities that are showing the opposite voice that we are hearing so much throughout the media, specifically the right-wing media, that shows that migrants are somehow a problem,” said Marcus Longmuir, a volunteer with the Jackson Heights Immigrant Solidarity Network. “So our organization is about saying no, immigration is not the problem. The problem is when you have a policy that is introduced that doesn't have any positive social benefit.”     

“What the Trump administration has done is clearly classist and racist in its nature,” said Abbey Sussell, public charge fellow for New York Immigrant Coalition. “Public charge isn't a new rule but the [proposed] changes to it have a huge impact already on folks. Already, we know thousands of people are dropping off their benefits for fear of having the benefits there entitled to having an impact on their immigration status.”

Across the country, public benefit agencies have seen decreased enrollment rates due to a chilling effect attributed to fears about the public charge policy. One study found that in at least 18 states, including New York, WIC agencies have seen a drastic drop of up to 20 percent in enrollment, even though WIC is not one of the services that counts against immigrants when the government tabulates public charge usage. But that’s part of the problem immigrant advocates say: The new rule has been “driving fear, concern, and animosity,” in immigrant communities across the country, as Longmuir describes it. He and other advocates see the fear and confusion engendered as deliberate.  

“One of the many problems with the public charge is the fact that it's only going to affect a small number of people but the amount of discussion over it kind of takes over. The administration could say they’re going to do this and package it in terms that sound reasonable,” said Longmuir. “It’s almost like the policy itself isn't about government anymore, it’s about fear. It puts the economic burdens on the people that don’t have the mechanisms of support. This administration likes to make statements in which people are now afraid to speak out.”

As they attempt to combat the fear and misinformation that is clouding the conversation around the public charge, community organizations are finding it challenging to translate the bureaucratic jargon of the new rule changes. “Obviously with any policy like this there is always a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and misinformation about what is a public benefit and who this applies to,” said Farzana Linda, advocacy and organizing program manager with Chhaya CDC, an organization that advocates for the housing needs of the South Asian community in New York. “A lot of this information is not communicated in a very accessible way. All you hear is that if you’re not a citizen, and you’re receiving public benefits, you may potentially bar yourself from preceding further with your statues. These are not words that translate easily.”

Farzan, who immigrated to the United Staes from Bangladesh at two-years old, believes that the new rule change could adversely affect her family members as they immigrate to the country. “I do have family who will be moving here in the next couple of years so it’s important for me to let them know what the deal is and how this will affect them.”

As the legal challenges work their way through the courts, local elected officials are hoping to stem the tide of dis-enrollment by clarifying the new rules. Carlina Rivera and Francisco Moya, who represent Manhattan’s District 2 and Queens’ District 21 respectively in the New York City Council, have introduced legislation requiring city agencies to create and distribute comprehensive fact sheets and resource materials.

“The danger of this rule change lies not only in its xenophobia, which asserts that America is open only to the wealthy but also in the uncertainty and fear it strikes in so many of us,” they wrote in a recent op-ed. “It is easy to be scared by the hateful rhetoric that we hear from the president and his acolytes. But if we educate ourselves and each other, we can protect our communities and fight back to ensure our most hardworking, resilient and vibrant communities receive equal treatment.”