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In October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a proposed rule changing “public charge” regulations in a way that would deny access to visas and lawful permanent resident status for immigrants who use public programs. It was one of the Trump administration’s ongoing series of attacks on low-income immigrants, intended to block families from obtaining lawful status and maintaining secure lives in the United States.

For decades, the U.S. government has used a “public charge” test to determine if a person who seeks to enter the country with a visa or applies to become a lawful permanent resident is likely to become dependent on the government for their main source of income and subsistence. Under current rules, only individuals who are dependent on a limited number of publicly funded programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income or are institutionalized for long-term care are deemed public charges.

The proposed new test proposes to punish immigrants for using a broader range of programs such as non-emergency Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and public housing. Additionally, this proposed rule harshly punishes families who earn less than 250 percent above the federal poverty line, which comes out to nearly $63,000 a year for a family of four – more than the median household income in the United States. All told, the proposed rule is a radical shift in policy that would drastically increase the scope of who is considered a public charge to include not just people who receive benefits as their main source of support, but also people who use basic needs programs to supplement their earnings from low-wage work.

The rule also indicates a preference for immigrants who speak English, which if implemented would mark a fundamental change in the U.S. government’s historic commitment to welcoming and integrating immigrants. Because the proposed rule targets family-based immigration as well as low- and moderate-wage workers, it will have a disproportionate impact on people of color. All of these changes amount to an unconscionable sea change in American immigration policy towards counting wealth and income as the primary indicators of a person’s humanity and future contribution. If finalized, it would put the wellbeing of millions of families at risk and undermine the fundamental notion that wealth, age, and educational attainment should not determine an individual’s access to security and justice in our society.
DHS knows the harm this rule will bring to American families and communities. Specifically, DHS cites in its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (page 51270) the following disastrous potential consequences as expected and acceptable consequences of the proposed rule:

  1. “worse health outcomes, including increased prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant women, infants, or children, and reduced prescription adherence”
  2. “increased use of emergency rooms and emergent care as a method of primary health care due to delayed treatment”
  3. “increased prevalence of communicable diseases”
  4. “increases in uncompensated care”
  5. “increased rates of poverty and housing instability”
  6. “reduced productivity and educational attainment”

Even amidst a chaotic news cycle, Americans took notice of the Trump administration’s cruel attempt to restructure our immigration system through the public charge rule. People submitted more than 216,000 comments to the Federal Register over the controversial proposal. The federal government is now tasked with reviewing and responding to those comments.

The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) submitted a comment on the rule and participated in the national and Illinois-based Protecting Immigrant Families coalitions to raise awareness about the rule’s potential harms. Too many of our clients, like Emily and Jose, would be harshly impacted if the rule were implemented.

At this moment, there is no timeline for a response from the federal government. NIJC will continue to engage with stakeholders to ensure our clients, their family members, and our staff and allies are informed of any developments.

NIJC remains committed to fighting this and any other cruel and xenophobic policy this and future administrations may attempt to enact.

Julián Lazalde is NIJC’s civic engagement & policy analyst