Green cards and visas will soon be denied to low-income immigrants who get — or will one day need — public assistance benefits like food stamps, housing vouchers, Supplemental Social Security Income and Medicaid, despite their having entered the U.S. legally, the Trump administration announced Monday.
The government’s move to redefine and expand its definition of a “public charge”— someone who is considered to be primarily dependent on the government and a financial burden to the U.S. — is one of the administration’s most aggressive strides yet to limit legal immigration.
The new rule, which takes effect on Oct. 15, favors wealthier immigrants seeking permanent status and puts the poor at a disadvantage, analysts and scholars say. People who are subject to the “public charge” determination process are applicants seeking a green card or a visa, not citizenship.
Though the process has always weighed factors such as income, education, health status and skills, under the new rule U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will also consider whether applicants have received public assistance for more than a year within the previous three years in order to determine if the applicant can gain legal status.
If the government foresees a new applicant one day needing government assistance in order to get by, the application will be denied, according to the new rule.
“What the rule does is if you’re a family that’s low-income, it starts you off at a huge disadvantage,” said Anne Swerlick of the Florida Policy Institute. “It discriminates against immigrant families who are of lower income and makes it extremely difficult for people applying for green cards and various types of visas. This fundamentally changes the U.S.’s approach to immigration, making family income and potential use of health care, nutrition or housing programs a central consideration in whether or not to offer people an opportunity to make their lives in this country.”
Federal officials said the rule will “better ensure that aliens seeking to enter and remain in the United States — either temporarily or permanently — are self-sufficient and rely on their own capabilities and the resources of family members, sponsors, and private organizations rather than on public resources.”
Asylees, refugees, trafficking victims and victims of domestic violence are all exempt from the public-charge rule. Also exempt: individuals granted relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act, the Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act and the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act.
The new rule also has exemptions for some benefits that will not be counted under the rule: the Medicare Part D low-income program subsidy, as well as benefits awarded to pregnant women or children under 21.
According to the American Immigration Council, there were about 4.1 million people who were non-citizens living in Florida in 2017, and 26 percent of them— about 1.2 million — have used some type of health care, food, housing or government cash-support benefit.
Migrants currently make up a small percentage of those who get public benefits, mainly because many are ineligible from the start because of their immigration status. However, analysts say the new rule is more likely to have a direct impact on people who wouldn’t be targeted at all.
“Strictly speaking, the number of people who are directly affected by this is much smaller than the universe of people who think they are affected and are going to react to this,” said Matt Childers, director of research and policy at the Florida Health Justice Project, a bipartisan research nonprofit organization . “This is called a ‘chilling effect.’ “
A recent study from Protecting Immigrant Families, a campaign formed by the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Immigration Law Center, noted that “by threatening immigration status when immigrants use programs to meet their family’s basic needs, the proposal would make immigrant families in Florida afraid to access programs — like health care and food assistance — that support essential needs.”
That study noted that about 2.1 million people in Florida would experience the “chilling effects” of the new rule, including 609,000 children. The bulk of that population live in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those figures are based on families with at least one non-citizen and earned income under 250 percent of the federal poverty line.
“Families’ fear to participate in Medicaid could result in coverage losses throughout Florida, decreased access to care, and worse health outcomes for the entire family, including U.S. citizen children,” the Protecting Immigrant Families report said. “Decreased participation among Florida immigrant families in food assistance could lead to higher levels of poverty and food insecurity.”
In two briefs published in November — while the rule was in draft form — the Florida Health Justice Project analyzed the impacts that the changes would have on SNAP enrollment (food stamps) and healthcare coverage among U.S.-born children in “mixed-status” families in Florida and its major metropolitan areas.
The report said that about 80,000 kids would lose food stamp benefits and more than 107,000 kids would lose health insurance in Florida because households are expected to not apply for benefits out of fear. More than half of them reside in the Miami metropolitan area. The analysis used data from the 2016 American Community Survey.
Childers noted that the number of citizen children who would be adversely affected under the rule is significantly higher than the data he shared for various reasons.
“No. 1, this analysis does not include an estimate of the children who are currently eligible but not enrolled in the program. No. 2, the chilling effects from the changes in the public-charge rule are likely to be much greater than what we estimate here because this is a policy change that is directly targeting immigrants,” he said.
The numbers are based on the estimate that 15 to 35 percent of households with at least one non-immigrant member will disenroll from their benefits out of fear. The estimate was measured based on “unintended consequences” of the 1990s welfare reform, Childers said, which was not meant to directly target immigrants, yet led to mass disenrollments from Medicaid.
“This is how it will work: It will affect lots of people who are applying for green cards and visas but will affect even more people who otherwise wouldn’t be affected at all — all because of fear, confusion and lack of good information.”
Childers said various immigration and policy organizations are in the midst of organizing community informational workshops for people in South Florida.