Half of All Noncitizens in U.S. Could Be Affected by Trump Administration Public Charge Rule, Up from Current 3 Percent

WASHINGTON, June 12, 2018 — A Trump administration draft proposed rule affecting lawfully present immigrants who use public benefits or tax credits for which they or their dependents are eligible would sharply expand the number who could find it more difficult to get a green card or renew a visa, the Migration Policy Institute concludes in a new report. The expected public charge rule likely would significantly chill the use of public benefits by legal immigrants and their U.S.-born dependents, the researchers find. A proposed rule is expected soon.

Leaked drafts of the proposed rule suggest the administration is considering sweeping expansion of who could constitute a public charge, resulting in hurdles for legally present noncitizens to get future immigration benefits. A draft also included text suggesting the administration may be considering changing standards for when benefits use could become grounds for deportation of legally present noncitizens.

Drawing upon MPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, the report finds that 47 percent of noncitizens in the United States are in families that use one or more benefits that could be considered in a public charge determination under the contemplated broader definition—up from 3 percent now.

The draft proposed rule would represent major change to the policies governing the use or potential use of benefits by immigrants in the United States. Congress in 1996 decreed that legal immigrants cannot get many public benefits during their first five years of U.S. residence. In 1999, federal officials issued guidance that dependence on cash welfare or government-funded, long-term institutional care would result in risking a public charge determination. (Unauthorized immigrants are ineligible for nearly all federal public benefits.)

The Trump administration, which has contemplated change to the public charge determination since its first weeks in office, would vastly broaden the factors taken into consideration in deciding whether to grant a green card, extend a visa or admit a prospective immigrant. A March 2018 leaked draft suggests immigration officers would consider current and prior benefits usage not only by the individual but by dependents, including U.S. citizens. A far greater range of means-tested benefits would be considered, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, i.e. food stamps), as well as subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and receipt of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit.

MPI analysis of Census 2014-2016 data found that more than 10 million noncitizens reside in families receiving one or more of the four major means-tested benefit programs tracked in the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (Medicaid/CHIP, SNAP, Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). When adding naturalized citizens, the number of foreign-born individuals living in a benefits-receiving household rises to 17.7 million. And adding the 9.2 million U.S.-born children residing in these families means that at least 26.9 million people in the United States live in a benefits-receiving family with at least one immigrant member.

“History offers an important lesson: After welfare reform in 1996, rates of benefits use fell sharply, even among groups whose eligibility was unchanged, such as refugees and the U.S.-born children of immigrants,” said MPI Senior Fellow and report co-author Michael Fix, a nationally recognized expert on welfare use. “Fear of the consequences of using public benefits could be even greater now, considering the highly politicized climate, ramped-up immigration enforcement and the first effort in decades to reduce legal immigration.”

Among the report’s other top findings:

  • The draft proposed rule could significantly reshape future legal immigration flows by giving the administration broad discretion to deny a much larger share of applications from prospective immigrants as well as those already present who are seeking a green card. Specifically, it would become more difficult for children, the elderly, persons with lower levels of education and/or limited English proficiency, and those with incomes under 250 percent of the federal poverty level to enter and remain in the United States. As a result, the administration could significantly shift the U.S. legal immigration system away from family-based immigration—bypassing Congress and the need to build public support for substantive reform of the immigration system.
  • The impact of the expected rule would be broadly felt across the two largest racial/ethnic groups among U.S. immigrants. About 10.3 million Hispanic and 3.8 million Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants lived in benefit-receiving families. Sixty-five percent of Hispanic immigrants and 42 percent of AAPI immigrants were noncitizens; if the proposed rule makes benefit use grounds for deportation, as was raised in a March 2018 leaked draft, this could be broadly felt among both groups.
  • Public benefits use for immigrants is largely a work support. Fifty-eight percent of noncitizen and naturalized-citizen adults (ages 16 to 64) who received one or more benefits were employed, as compared to 44 percent of U.S.-born recipients. Use of non-cash benefit programs, SNAP and Medicaid/CHIP in particular, dominated.
  • The impacts of the proposed rule likely would fall heaviest on states with large immigrant populations and generous benefit policies. California and New York together accounted for 41 percent of the nation’s 17.7 million immigrants living in benefit-receiving families. Following the passage of the 1996 welfare law, these two states adopted social welfare policies that extended benefits to some legal immigrants newly excluded from federal programs. With the draft rule considering expanding the range of state benefits that could be considered in a public charge determination, the chilling effects in these states may be particularly far-reaching.

“The new rule would be at odds with the public health, nutrition and other efforts that state and local governments have undertaken to encourage eligible immigrant families to participate in social welfare programs since the mid-1990s,” said MPI Senior Fellow Mark Greenberg, who led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families for three years and served in other high-ranking roles in the department. “The new federal rule could be seen as overriding the policy preferences of state governments and may chill immigrant families’ access to a broad range of health and social services for which they are eligible.”

Read the report, Chilling Effects: The Expected Public Charge Rule and Its Impact on Legal Immigrant Families’ Public Benefits Use, here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/chilling-effects-expected-public-charge-rule-impact-legal-immigrant-families.

And for MPI estimates of public benefits use by noncitizens, naturalized citizens and the U.S. born at U.S. and state levels, click here.

The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, D.C. dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. For more on MPI, click here.