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Immigration Public Charge Rule
The Trump administration wants to redefine an obscure immigration test—the “public charge” test—to deny green cards and legal status to working-class immigrants.
The proposal would also drastically limit immigrant families’ access to public services and assistance.
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What Is the Public Charge Test?
First added to federal law in 1882, the public charge test applies to two types of immigrants:
- Immigrants applying for visas (“green cards”) from outside the United States to reunite with family;
- Immigrants living here who have applied for green cards, including undocumented immigrants and documented immigrants without green cards.
To pass the public charge test, immigrants must show that they are unlikely to end up living in long-term-care institutions funded by Medicaid or wholly dependent on means-tested cash assistance, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to survive.
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How Is the New Rule Different From Current Policy?
The president’s proposal would redefine the test to require most immigrants seeking green cards to show that they have a middle-class income: specifically, more than 250 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $62,750 for a family of four—about $12,000 more than the earnings of a typical full-time worker.
Immigrants would also fail the test if officials decided that they or their family members were “likely” to receive almost any public service, tax credit, or assistance based on income. This includes the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, WIC, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps)—and even the Affordable Care Act’s premium tax credit for people purchasing individual health insurance.
Undocumented immigrants and even many legal immigrants are ineligible for public programs such as Medicaid and SNAP. But they sometimes live with U.S.-citizen children who are eligible. Under the president’s proposal, if parents enroll their child in one of the covered public programs, the parents would fail the public charge test, even if the child is a U.S. citizen.
The new rule also singles out people with disabilities or serious health conditions. If an immigrant has “any medical condition” and does not have “non-subsidized health insurance”—in other words, they do not get their health insurance through their employer or pay for it out of pocket without receiving the premium tax credit—they would be excluded.
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Doesn’t This Make Sure We’re Only Admitting the Best of the Best?
Nope. For decades, our immigration laws have balanced family unity, economic, and humanitarian considerations. We know this balanced approach works: Overall, immigrants who have been admitted under our longstanding rules are more likely to be entrepreneurs and hold advanced degrees. They create millions of jobs, and add billions to the GDP.
There’s also a very basic issue of American values. Generations have come here with nothing but the clothes on their back. Through hard work and a belief in the American Dream, they and their descendants became small business owners; teachers; and caregivers; our neighbors and our friends. If this policy had been in place, they would have been judged and excluded based on where they were starting out at. That’s not America.
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What’s the Actual Reason for This Policy?
To understand this proposal, it’s helpful to know some history. In 1882, before we had a federal immigration system, Congress passed two laws.
The first, the Chinese Exclusion Act, barred Chinese workers. The second, targeting Irish Catholics, allowed officials to exclude what were then called “public charges”—people who couldn’t work, didn’t have family here, and were likely to end up in almshouses.
Before our modern immigration system, the public charge test was often used to discriminate—to exclude people with disabilities, unmarried women, even Jews fleeing the Holocaust. During World War II, we repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and, not long after that, most other racist immigration laws.
The public charge test remained, and was used to exclude the few immigrants who couldn’t work, didn’t have family here, and were likely end up in the modern equivalent of almshouses—nursing homes or wholly dependent on cash assistance.
Now, President Donald Trump wants to turn back the clock—he wants to use public charge to discriminate again and to override our family immigration system.
Based on statements Trump has made about immigrants from other countries—whether it’s the claims he’s made about Mexican immigrants since he announced his campaign or his contempt for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa—it seems the Trump administration is revamping the policy to support his own racist animus.
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The rule is still in draft form, but it will likely be published in the Federal Register as a proposed rule in the next month or two. After that, there will be 30 days to 60 days for the public to comment on it.
As currently drafted, benefits—besides SSI and TANF for subsistence and Medicaid for long-term care—received before the rule is finalized will not be considered in future public-charge determinations. Immigrant families who are currently receiving benefits that would be covered by the reinterpretation shouldn’t panic or disenroll children from health insurance, but they should know that there might be changes.
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Where Can I Learn More?
Center for American Progress, Trump Plans New Limits on Family Immigration and Access to Services, February 12, 2018.
TalkPoverty, The Leaked Rule That Could Ban Immigrants Based on Income, Explained by Experts, March 1, 2018.
National Immigration Law Center, Access to Health Care, Food, and Other Public Programs for Immigrant Families under the Trump Administration, April 2, 2018.
Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign Resources, April 2018.