Trump Admin's 'Public Charge' Rule Could Be Deterring Immigrants From Seeking Support Amid Pandemic, Study Says

A new study has warned that the Trump administration's "public charge" rule could be deterring immigrant families from seeking public benefits at a time when many families across the country have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Trump administration's "public charge" rule, which was implemented in February, allows officials to consider an immigrant's use or potential future use of certain benefits programs in the U.S. as a negative factor in their applications for green cards or temporary visas.

As a result, immigrants who already rely on benefits programs or who appear likely to use them in the future could risk hurting their chances of having future immigration applications approved.

In a study published on Monday, Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Urban Institute, found that the rule may have already had a "chilling effect" on immigrant families in 2019, with more families avoiding seeking benefits over fears that doing so might hurt their future chances of obtaining a green card.

Nearly 1 in 3 adults (31 percent) in immigrant families where at least one member was not a permanent resident, the group most likely to be affected by the public charge rule, said they had avoided seeking benefits in 2019 over fears that it could impact at least one family member's future immigration status in the U.S.

The percentage represents a significant surge from 2018, when researchers found that just 21.8 percent of adults in the same group had avoided seeking public benefits over the same fears.

Overall, the study also found that more than one in seven adults in immigrant families generally (15.6 percent) reported that they or a family member had avoided a non-cash government benefit program in 2019 over immigration status fears.

Meanwhile, more than one in four adults in low-income immigrant families (26.2 percent) reported chilling effects.

"The results are very alarming," Urban Institute Principal Research Associate Hamutal Bernstein told Newsweek. "They suggest that families vulnerable to serious economic hardship are going to be less likely to partake in supports that they and their children need. It's really concerning."

The study found that among adults reportedly "avoiding non-cash government benefit programs because of green card concerns, nearly half said their families avoided Medicaid/CHIP or SNAP and one-third avoided housing subsidies."

Meanwhile, the study says: "Smaller but substantial shares of adults also reported spillover effects to public programs excluded from the public charge rule, including free or low-cost medical care programs for the uninsured (20.8 percent); the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC (16.3 percent); Marketplace health insurance coverage (14.1 percent); and free or reduced-price school lunches (13.0 percent)."

With many families across the country struggling amid the coronavirus outbreak, Bernstein said the study's findings are particularly concerning.

"We don't want families to opt out of those programs that their kids need especially now when the workers and their families are being disproportionately affected by some of the shut downs and economic impact," she said. "We definitely don't want them to worry that getting their kids food they need is going to affect the public charge determination."

Bernstein said the study also found that many families were still confused about how exactly the public charge rule might affect them.

When asked, two-thirds of adults in immigrant families (66.6 percent) said they were aware of the public charge rule and 65.5 percent said they were "confident in their understanding about the rule."

However, the study found that only 22.7 percent knew that the rule does not apply to citizenship applications, while only 19.1 percent knew that children's enrollment in Medicaid would not be considered in their parents' public charge determinations.

Much of the confusion, Bernstein said, is due to a lack of clarity around exactly what the public charge policy means for immigrant families.

"The public charge rule has had a long and confusing arc of development which has contributed to confusion," she said, noting the rule appeared to have a chilling effect well before its implementation.

The Urban Institute's study drew on data from the December 2019 round of the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey and included a full analytic sample of 1,747 adults between the ages of 16 and 64 and in immigrant families.

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

public charge
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (left) at the California State Capitol on August 16, 2019 in Sacramento, California. He and other leaders have spoken out against the public charge rule. Justin Sullivan/Getty