The Public Charge Rule – What Advocates Need to Know

December 4, 2019 / Author: Kerry Keitzman

UPDATE: The public charge rule went into effect February 24, 2020. Public charge does NOT apply to all immigrants. Every family is different, and the programs that help your family might not be part of new changes to the policy. Benefit use of children 18 and under does not affect the immigration status of adults in the household. Use of public programs like school and summer meals, WIC and CHIP do not affect your immigration status. Stay informed and know your rights before making any decisions about benefit use.

The Public Charge rule has been used by immigration officials since 1999 to determine whether a person will be able to enter the U.S. on certain visas or receive a green card. To decide, officials look at a person’s income, health, employment, skills and/or education, family situation, and whether a sponsor signed a contract to support the person. Historically, the only benefits considered in determining who is likely to become a “public charge” are: 1) cash assistance for income maintenance, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and similar state or local programs, and 2) government-funded long-term institutional care. A new rule was proposed that would add participation in the following public programs as a factor:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, “EBT”, or “food stamps”)
  • Federal Public Housing and Section 8 assistance
  • Medicaid (except emergencies, children under 21 years, pregnant women, and new mothers)

The public charge rule ultimately determines who deserves to immigrate to the United States. The proposed rule change is one of many immigration policy tactics the current administration is using to build an invisible wall and send the message that immigrants who are not white and wealthy are not welcome. The other tactics include Muslim and refugee bans, Census citizenship question and the proclamation that when seeking entry, immigrants must have health insurance or the ability to pay out-of-pocket for health care.

Because of these attacks, more and more families are being deterred from receiving benefits to which their citizen children are entitled and are pulling out of these vital programs due to what is known as the “chilling effect.” This refers to immigrant parents and families disenrolling or not applying for needed benefits out of fear of negative consequences from the government. Uninsured rates among children have increased for the first time in a decade. There is also confusion about which programs are covered by the proposed new public charge rule; enrollment is declining in programs, such as free or reduced-price school meals and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), that are not considered under the proposed rule change. As a result, citizen children are not getting the help and benefits that they need, which are proven to help lift people out of poverty and become self-sufficient.

The Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) called it a “cruel attack on immigrant families.” The public charge rule is just that, a cruel attack. It is inhumane because families should not be penalized for needing support, and they should not have to live their lives in fear of retaliation. The Tennessee Justice Center stands with the immigrant community in opposing the proposed change to the public charge rule.

The proposed rule change was fortunately blocked by the court, but it is only temporary. While the litigation continues, eligibility rules for public benefit programs remain the same. Families should be encouraged to sign up for health insurance through TennCare, CoverKids and the Affordable Care Act’s marketplace – where open enrollment ends on December 15.

MORE: Medicaid Helps Lift Families Out of Poverty

Kerry Keitzman is a Children’s Health intern at the Tennessee Justice Center.