‘Public charge’: How changes to federal guidelines could affect immigrants who rely on benefits

Several hundred people participate in a naturalization ceremony at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix on July 4, 2018. New rules on immigrants who are considered a “public charge” were set to take effect Tuesday, but federal judges Friday issued a nationwide injunction blocking implementation. (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

This story was updated at 12:55 p.m. MT

PHOENIX – The Trump administration’s proposed changes to the so-called public charge rule have caused widespread confusion among immigrant communities across Arizona and the U.S. Under the new policy, use of such benefits as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid would be among the considerations used to determine whether immigrants are eligible for admission into the U.S. or to obtain a green card.

The changes had been scheduled to take effect Tuesday, but federal judges Friday issued a nationwide injunction blocking implementation.

Already, however, several Arizona organizations report that some migrants have stopped taking advantage of certain benefits for fear they’ll later be deemed ineligible for a green card or an adjustment of status.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., explains the proposed revisions and who might be affected.

What are some of the most significant changes the new rule is going to have on the way U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services considers green card applicants?

The new public charge rule will basically expand the definition of who is considered a public charge, meaning who is considered to be primarily dependent on the government to get by. The definition used to include just a few types of public benefits. But this new rule expands the public benefits … to include things like food stamps, housing assistance, public housing, things like that. And Medicaid as well, except for children. So, it’s a broader definition of public benefits that can cast somebody as a public charge.

Why are these changes being made now?

Initially, in the ’90s, there was just a very narrow definition that was applied to the public charge rule. That administration chose to define it as just receiving cash assistance or long-term care at the expense of the government – so somebody who was really, really dependent on the government to get by. The new set of benefits includes things that low-income working families, U.S. citizens and immigrants alike rely on to get through hard times.

Who is affected by this rule?

The new public charge rule applies to noncitizens who are applying for a green card, or who want to apply for a green card in the future. It only looks at benefits used by that green card applicant … so any benefits received for U.S. citizen children, those wouldn’t cast somebody as a public charge. The other group that’s not included is people who already have those green cards, for legal permanent residents in the United States. … The public charge will only apply at the time of applying for a green card. So people who already have those green cards don’t need to worry about their public benefits use for this reason.

Do the changes apply retroactively?

The rule … will only look at benefits that are received after the rule goes into effect. So if somebody has received public benefits in the past, that won’t be included in considering whether or not they’re a public charge. But any benefits received into the future – those benefits that are specifically listed on the rule will be considered.

Can you explain who’s eligible for the public benefits described in this rule?

The actual list of people who are eligible for public benefits in this country, and have some possibility of applying for a green card in the future, is actually really small. That public charge rule excludes humanitarian migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers or asylees; they are eligible for public benefits, but their public benefit use doesn’t count in this public charge rule determination. So there’s a very small set of people who are actually eligible for public benefits today, and have the possibility of applying for a green card. … But most of the people who are eligible for public benefits in the United States today either already have that green card or they have U.S. citizenship, and the public charge rule doesn’t apply to them.

Q: Ahead of the rule change, news reports have pointed to widespread effects the revisions are having in migrant communities. Have you seen examples of this?

There was a really great survey that was from the Urban Institute, and they found that … 1 in 7 people living in a household with immigrant members said they were not using public benefits, or had actually dropped off of public benefits, because they were afraid of the immigration consequences. So that was one measure we have. We’ll have to see after the rule takes force in October … whether there’s an additional impact or whether people have already been killed off of these programs.

Why are so many fearful of these rule changes?

For a long time, there have been chilling effects around public benefits in the United States. Even before President (Donald) Trump, even before President (Barack) Obama, service providers worked hard to convince immigrant families that it’s safe to use public benefits when they need them. There are rumors that have been swirling around in the United States for decades that using public benefits will have consequences for your ability to get a green card or to get naturalization, or even that children will have to serve in the military to repay those benefits. There are these long-standing rumors that have been hard for service providers to overcome. … Some policy changes around welfare reform in the 1990s also gave new force or new power to those rumors, and this public charge is doing the same. So it’s just a difficult area that people feel fear about … anything that plays into that can exacerbate it.

Contributing to this story were Cronkite News reporters Harrison Mantas in Washington, D.C., and Allie Barton in Phoenix. The interview has been condensed for the purpose of this story.

Health Reporter, Phoenix