Trump Administration’s Defense of New ‘Public Charge’ Rule Ignores Racist Legacy

The origins of the policy are rooted in discriminatory beliefs about poor immigrants as undeserving and undesirable.

[Photo: A woman walks past the Social Security Administration office in downtown Los Angeles.]
The Trump administration’s proposal radically expands the types of public benefit programs that DHS will consider in a public charge determination and the types of immigrants who will be subject to the rule. Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

On a Saturday evening in September, the Trump administration released a draft policy that would dramatically constrain one of the primary pathways immigrants have used to enter or remain in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on September 22 proposed changes to its application of “public charge,” a longstanding policy that considers an individual’s likelihood of becoming dependent on the receipt of public benefits. A finding that an immigrant is “likely at any time to become a public charge” allows the federal government to prevent them from entering the United States or obtaining lawful permanent residency status (also known as a “green card”). Under the proposal, such determinations would take into account if a person has ever received Medicaid coverage, food stamps, or housing assistance, and would even take into account their socioeconomic status and how well they understand English.

Although the policy is coded in terms of economic self-sufficiency, the targets are the people it has deemed undesirable—low-wage immigrants of color, older immigrants, and immigrants with disabilities or medical conditions. The majority of these immigrants are also Asian American or Latinx and have family members of mixed immigration and citizenship statuses.

While the rule change would only apply to the individual applicants and would not take into account public benefit use by family members, history has shown that restrictive changes in immigration policies (such as the so-called welfare reform law of 1996) have a chilling effect on enrollment and public benefit use among immigrants and their family members. In fact, health and social service providers have already seen a decrease in enrollment and even disenrollment in Medicaid; food stamps; the Women, Children, and Infants program; and other programs among immigrants and their family members who are already fearful of seeking benefits to which they are entitled.  

That is the cruel irony of this policy—knowing that you or your family members are eligible for public assistance but will be punished for seeking it. As a parent, I know there is no bigger fear than the threat of family separation. And as a child of immigrants who entered the United States with nonimmigrant visas and later obtained green cards and eventually secured their U.S. citizenship, I also understand the devastating impact this policy will have on immigrants who stake their economic, social, and emotional lives on the prospect of permanently residing with their family members and becoming U.S. citizens.

As Rewire.News Tina Vasquez reported, the proposal fulfills one of the Trump administration’s top immigration policy priorities: to dismantle the system that currently allows immigrants to join family members already in the United States and replace it with a so-called “merit-based” immigration system.

Public charge was first incorporated into immigration law as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1882. The origins of the policy are rooted in discriminatory beliefs about poor immigrants as undeserving and undesirable. Lawmakers initially used public charge to exclude poor Irish Catholic and Chinese immigrants from entering the United States, and later as justification to keep out Jewish refugees, people with disabilities, LGBTQ immigrants, unmarried women, and other individuals from “deviant” communities. Since the 1990s, however, the courts, Congress, and previous administrations have put limits on how DHS could apply the policy. Only 3 percent of immigrants are currently subject to public charge determinations.

The Trump administration’s proposal radically expands the types of public benefit programs that DHS will consider in a public charge determination and the types of immigrants who will be subject to the rule. If the rule goes into effect, immigration officials would be able consider an immigrant’s receipt of public programs such as non-emergency Medicaid, Medicare Part D subsidies, food stamps, and housing assistance programsall of which were previously excluded from public charge considerations.

The proposed rule also changes how an immigrant’s socioeconomic status will be taken into account. DHS will be allowed to scrutinize certain factors in an immigrant’s application—such as English proficiency and age—according to new standards. The proposal further permits certain factors to be weighted as heavily “positive”—such as earnings of 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or higher—or heavily negative—such as having a medical condition and the inability to show proof of private insurance coverage or the ability to pay for the costs needed to treat the condition.

To add insult to injury, the administration’s purported goal of economic self-sufficiency will come at a high cost to the U.S. public. By its own admission, DHS notes that the changes could result in “worse health outcomes, including prevalence of obesity and malnutrition, especially for pregnant or breastfeeding women, infants, or children,” as well as “increased use of emergency rooms,” “increased prevalence of communicable diseases,” “increased rates of poverty and housing instability,” and “reduced productivity and education attainment.” This is the price the Trump administration wants all Americans to pay to keep out families like mine.

Further, the administration’s argument that the changes to the public charge rule are needed to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and reduce federal spending is not supported by facts. Immigrants are already subject to eligibility restrictions in federal benefit programs, and even when eligible, they use these programs at lower rates compared with U.S. citizens. Family-based immigrants also foster self-sufficiency through their family ties. Immigrants often rely on their family networks to find employment, housing, child care, and financial support. While family-based immigrants who first arrive to the United States have lower earned incomes compared to skills- or employment-based immigrants, family-based immigrants are much more likely to experience upward mobility due to the support they receive from these informal networks. These immigrants make significant contributions to the U.S. economy and local communities. Moreover, the majority of immigrants who apply for and obtain green cards through family sponsorship are women.

Don’t be fooled. The proposed changes to public charge are not grounded in economic policy but in discriminatory principles that are part of the Trump administration’s systematic and deliberate effort to roll back civil, health, and social protections for people of color, people with disabilities, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals.