What The Trump Administration's New 'Public Charge' Rule Means For Immigrants

The Trump administration's "public charge" rule will take effect Monday following a Supreme Court ruling allowing the widely condemned policy change to come into full force across 50 states.

In the Supreme Court's decision, justices ruled in favor of the Trump administration, lifting the last remaining injunction protecting Illinois residents from the rule, which critics have branded a "wealth test" for immigrants.

The policy, officially titled the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, seeks to make it more difficult for immigrants who are likely to "become a public charge" to obtain visas and green cards in the U.S.

Under the new rule, immigrants who rely on benefits or who are considered likely to rely on benefits, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers, could see hampered efforts toward obtaining a visa or green card.

Beginning Monday, when an individual seeks admission into the U.S. or an adjustment of their status in the U.S. and for those already living in the country, immigration officials will use a set of factors to determine whether their application should be denied based on the possibility they might become a public charge.

For example, being younger than 18 or older than 61, could be seen as a negative factor, according to an August report from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Having an annual income below the federal poverty line would also be a negative factor. (An income 125 percent or higher than the federal poverty line, meanwhile, would be a positive factor.)

"Health, education, family size, income, resources, and public benefits use will all be considered," the institute warns on its website. It also warns that "certain factors will be heavily weighted—for example, having income or resources of at least 250 percent of the poverty line will be weighted positively, while current or recent use of the specified public benefits will be heavily weighted negatively."

While the institute notes that it is "impossible to know" exactly who will be denied admission into the U.S. or a status adjustment under the U.S. government's criteria, an MPI analysis paints a picture of who might be at risk of denial.

"Using Census data to review the characteristics of recent green-card holders, MPI found 43 percent were not employed or enrolled in school; 39 percent did not speak English well or at all; 33 percent had incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line; 25 percent lacked a high school diploma; and 12 percent had incomes below 125 percent of poverty and were either under 18 or over 61," MPI said.

"Among recent green-card holders, 69 percent had at least one of these negative factors; 43 percent had at least two; and 17 percent had at least three," the institute asserted.

Therefore, it said, "Most applicants would fall into a gray area with some positive and some negative factors, underscoring how discretionary the process may be."

Public charge rule
California attorney genera Xavier Becerra (left) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the State of California would be suing the Trump administration on the legality of its 'public charge' rule. They ultimately lost. Justin Sullivan/Getty

Already, immigration advocacy groups have warned that months before the public charge rule was slated to come into effect it was already having an impact on immigrant communities.

An Urban Institute report released last year found that even in 2018 one-in-seven adults (13.7 percent) in immigrant households said they or at least one of their family members had chosen not to participate in a non-cash benefit program "out of fear of risking future green card status."

Among adults in low-income families, the rate was found to be even higher, with one-in-five (20.7 percent) adults saying they were too afraid to seek benefits for fear of negatively affecting their green card or visa applications.

Even among non-U.S. citizens who were already permanent residents and who will not be affected by the rule, the Urban Institute found signs of a "chilling effect," with researchers asserting that "while the proposed rule does not affect non-citizens who are already permanent residents, we still find that 14.7 percent of adults in families in which all non-citizens are also permanent residents reported not participating in a non-cash benefit program."

Despite widespread backlash to the rule, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency appeared to celebrate the Trump administration's "judicial victory" in getting approval from the Supreme Court to extend the policy to Illinois.

In a statement on Saturday, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency said the U.S. would be moving forward with rolling out the public charge rule "nationwide, including in Illinois, following another judicial victory lifting the injunction in that state."

"In light of the U.S. Supreme Court's Feb. 21, 2020 decision to stay the statewide injunction preventing implementation of the Final Rule issued by U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, USCIS will now apply the Final Rule to all applications and petitions postmarked (or submitted electronically) on or after Feb. 24, 2020," the agency said.

Noting that the public charge rule, which was published on August 14, had originally been expected to begin on October 15, before hitting a number of roadblocks, USCIS said the policy would "prescribe" how the Department determines "whether an alien is inadmissible, and ineligible to adjust status to that of a lawful permanent resident in the United States because the alien is likely at any time in the future to become a public charge."

Illinois, of course, was not the only state to try to prevent the public charge rule from taking effect. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the effects of the rule would be "devastating" for residents in his state after an attempt to sue the Trump administration over the policy failed in Supreme Court.

"Because of the 'public charge' rule, families are already going hungry and people are avoiding needed medical care," Newsom said in a January statement. "California will continue to fight against these efforts to terrorize immigrant families," he vowed.