Director of Poverty and Inequality Research
A new draft proposed rule from President Trump’s Department of Homeland Security would create a harsh new standard for immigration officials to decide whether to let immigrants lawfully in the United States stay here and let those seeking legal entry come and rejoin family. Under the proposed rule, immigration officials could turn away lawfully residing immigrants seeking to remain here or others seeking to come in the first place if they have received, or are judged likely to receive in the future, any of an array of public benefits tied to need. If the new standard regarding benefit receipt were applied to U.S.-born citizens, nearly one-third would have trouble meeting it, based on conservative assumptions.
Under federal law back to the late 1800s, immigration officials can turn down people seeking to enter the United States or become lawful permanent residents (a.k.a. green card holders) if officials determine that they are, or will likely become, a “public charge.” Longstanding federal policy considers someone a “public charge” if they receive (or are deemed likely to receive) more than half of their income from cash assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or receive long-term care through Medicaid.
The new Trump Administration proposal, by contrast, significantly broadens the public benefit programs considered in a public charge determination. It would consider whether the individual received, or would likely receive, assistance that includes health coverage through Medicaid; food assistance through SNAP (food stamps); housing assistance; subsidies to help Medicare recipients afford prescription drugs; and cash assistance through programs like TANF and SSI. And, instead of looking at whether more than half of an immigrant’s income comes (or would likely come in the future) from cash assistance tied to need, as they do now, immigration authorities would consider whether the individual received, or is likely to receive, modest amounts of any of these benefits — even if the benefits reflect only a small share of an immigrant’s total income.
If, as noted, this new standard were applied to U.S.-born citizens, a significant share likely would be considered a public charge. Looking at just one year of program participation shows that nearly one-third of U.S.-born citizens receive one of the main benefits that the rule targets. (As the note below explains, we could not examine all benefits included in the proposed rule; doing so would increase this estimate.) By contrast, about 5 percent of U.S.-born citizens meet the current benefit-related criteria in the public charge determination. The benefits included in the new proposal serve a far broader group of low- and moderate-income families, including many that include working adults but need help to make ends meet.
Moreover, because it reflects benefits received only during a single year, the one-third figure understates the share of U.S.-born citizens who could be determined a public charge. The rule itself would consider both immigrants’ (or would-be immigrants’) current receipt of assistance and if they’ll likely receive assistance from these programs in the future or received any in the past.
Under the proposal, immigration officials also would consider whether an individual’s current household income (excluding means-tested benefits) is below 125 percent of the poverty line, or about $31,375 for a household of four; immigrants who don’t receive benefits but have incomes below this threshold also could be denied entry. About 16 percent of U.S.-born citizens have cash income (excluding means-tested benefits) below this threshold, including many low-wage workers.
While U.S. citizens with such incomes often receive some assistance (such as SNAP or Medicaid), many immigrants with incomes this low do not. The household income-based factor in the proposed rule could mean that immigration officials could deny individuals who work in important but low-paid jobs — such as home health workers and custodians — the ability to remain in the United States or rejoin families here.
The rule is not only harsh but short-sighted. It will sow fear in immigrant communities and likely lead many immigrants who are here legally to forgo health coverage, nutrition, and housing assistance for which their families are eligible and which they need. Because immigration rules are complicated and sometimes opaque, many families that wouldn’t be subject to a public charge determination may nevertheless choose to forgo benefits for which they qualify, out of fear that their status could otherwise be in jeopardy. The affected children are important to our nation’s future. Many studies show that the kinds of assistance that the rule covers have positive effects on children, improving their health and helping them do better (and go farther) in school, thereby boosting their expected earnings as adults.
Moreover, the rule would essentially put a price tag on legal U.S. residency, turning our immigration system into one that heavily favors prospective immigrants with wealth over those who seek to follow the path of upward mobility that for centuries has brought millions of immigrants to our shores and enriched our country and economy in the process.
(Note: For the calculations above, we used the Current Population Survey, and we corrected for underreporting of SNAP, TANF, and SSI receipt in the Census survey using the Department of Health and Human Services/Urban Institute Transfer Income Model. The figures are for 2015, the latest year for which these corrections are available. Our program participation calculations include SNAP, TANF, SSI, Medicaid, housing assistance, and state General Assistance programs. If we could correct for the underreporting of Medicaid and count Medicare Part D low-income subsidies that are included in the Administration’s proposal, our estimates of program participation would increase. On the other hand, the rule disregards program participation in certain cases when the benefit amount is low, and modeling those provisions would decrease our estimates somewhat.)