What the heck is up with the “public charge” rule change?

What the heck is up with the “public charge” rule change? August 21, 2019
from https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrstphre/5489717927

Here’s the story, repeated over and over again:

Up until now, would-be permanent residents were deemed to be ineligible if they were a “public charge” based on the use of cash welfare programs.  The Trump administration has changed that rule to a determination that all welfare benefits, including those in-kind like SNAP/food stamps and Medicaid, count in the determination of whether one is a “public charge.”  As a result, immigrants are endangering the health and well-being of themselves and their children by rejecting these benefits meant to promote good nutrition and healthcare, so as to avoid losing permanent residency in the future.

But —

at the same time, with few exceptions, non-citizen non-Green Card-holders are simply not eligible for these benefits in the first place.  In general, there is a five-year wait even after attaining permanent residency.  And the exceptions in place to allow certain groups, such as refugees, to receive food stamps, are also in place to ensure that these new requirements don’t burden these groups.

In other words, this new rule ought to affect no one currently in the United States.

One group which immigrant advocates and reporters cite as being impacted, are illegal immigrants whose children receive Medicaid and SNAP.  Here’s a report at  KERA News (North Texas public broadcasting), though you can find many similar reports all over the news:

In Texas, some families worry that accessing benefits, like food stamps, could hurt their immigration status — even if the public charge rule wouldn’t affect them. In fact, since the Trump administration announced the rule change last year, immigrants have started to remove themselves from public programs.

In one study, the think tank Urban Institute found 1 in 7 immigrant families opted out of at least one government program after public charge was announced last year.

The report does not explicitly state that the affected immigrants are illegal immigrants, but a careful reading of the article makes this clear.  It cites a woman without indicating her immigration status, whose daughter is eligible for food stamps and Medicaid, but who does not receive them in the hopes of “protect[ing] the status of her older daughter, who’d been detained by immigration officials.”

And even though immigrant-aid groups are heavily engaged in fear-mongering about precisely this change, they rationalize keeping their mouths shut about the actual facts of the matter, because

Even if public charge is only supposed to impact future legal immigrants, ECHOS [nonprofit immigrant aid group] staffers aren’t lawyers, so they’re not qualified to convince their clients that getting benefits will be OK.

Now what exactly this means is not clear to me.  One could read it as “they aren’t successful at convincing their clients that this won’t harm them because they’re not skilled enough at explaining the situation” but that seems like a stretch.  The careful wording about not being “qualified” sounds like they have an actual policy of keeping their mouths shut, rationalized as avoiding “interpreting the law,” but if they can boost the level of fear, then claim, “this is a bad policy, since everyone’s afraid,” so much the better.

Here’s another example, from the Detroit News:  “Trump’s new immigration policy could affect over 116,000 in Michigan.”

Who are the 116,000?

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute estimates that 10.3 million non-citizens, including 116,000 in Michigan, are part of families receiving public benefits and could potentially be affected by the new rule.  . . .

Of the roughly 301,000 non-citizens in Michigan, an estimated 78,000 receive at least one public benefit mentioned in the new public charge rule, according to an analysis of 2014-16 Census Bureau survey data by the Migration Policy Institute.

However, few of those non-citizens (and none of their U.S. citizen relatives) would be directly affected by the rule because the majority are green-card holders and not subject to the new regulation, according to the institute.

The rule also doesn’t apply to other categories of immigrants, including refugees, asylum applicants, victims of human trafficking and pregnant women.

But advocates said a wider population could feel the impact of the rule if, as anticipated, a significant number of non-citizens and their family members stop using benefit programs for which they’re eligible.

Again, immigration advocacy groups have sown fear that this rule will affect people such as green card holders (nope!  it’s about eligibility for a green card in the future, for those without one) or illegal immigrants whose citizen-children receive benefits (nope! the citizen-child receives the benefit and it’s meant to fund their food needs) and then they complain that based on the fear they themselves have sown, immigrants are leaving, or are at risk of leaving, these benefit programs.

So what’s really going on?

Two guesses.

First, are there ways in which  illegal immigrants are receiving Medicaid and SNAP through loopholes that aren’t generally known to the public?  Are news outlets refraining from mentioning these loopholes because they want to keep them hidden from view?  I don’t know.

Second, the “public charge” rule also impacts future immigrants.  Here’s the Detroit News:

Experts anticipate that the new rule will have the greatest effect on prospective immigrants trying to enter the country through family-based immigration, particularly lower-income and less-educated applicants from poorer countries in Latin America and Africa.

That’s because the policy gives immigration officers the discretion to deny admission or green cards to people with incomes or financial assets below 250% of the poverty line, or about $62,000 for a family of four.

Other factors the government may now consider in addition to household income are limited English proficiency and education level.

“We can imagine this will impact many people coming forward to get permanent residency through a family-member sponsor, and I expect we’ll see a chilling effect for those applicants as well because it’s adding risk and uncertainty to a process that they’re entitled to,” said Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco.

The Migration Policy Institute found that 2.3 million of the 4 million non-citizens who arrived legally during the past five years (56%) did not have income sufficient to meet the 250% standard.

That standard would also have a regional impact, based on MPI’s analysis, which found that 71% of recently arrived Mexicans and Central Americans, 69% of Africans and 52% of Asian immigrants would have fallen short of the 250% income threshold.

“This is definitely an attack on those who are not wealthy, an attack on the poor,” Quinn said. “It really dispels this notion that you can come with little in terms of resources to the United States and work hard and fight to be part of the American dream.”

In other words, people applying for family-reunification Green Cards who would likely be applying for SNAP, Medicaid, and similar benefits as soon as they reach the eligibility residency-period, would be more likely to be denied.  (Does this also apply in the case of an illegal immigrant already resident in the US, married to a US citizen, and hoping to, as they say, “regularize their status”?  Presumably, though it doesn’t say how the income of the citizen-spouse is reflected.)

So look, I’m not going to get into the question now of whether we should evaluate the ability of new immigrants to support themselves (which has been the law already, but interpreted previously very narrowly), but if that’s really the beef that immigrant-advocacy groups have with this regulation change, can they at least be honest about it?

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