The government has traditionally considered someone who relies on government cash assistance for more than half of his or her income a public charge. Now, however, officials will take into account whether an individual or a family has received any of an assortment of noncash public benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps; the Section 8 program, which provides housing assistance; or the Medicare prescription drug program for older adults.
“This is long overdue,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, whose research supports decreased immigration. “This country has defined public charge in a fictional way in order to facilitate high levels of low-skilled immigration. But this is simply a 21st-century definition of what public charge is.”
Officials said that the new rule does not apply to refugees or asylum seekers who enter the country, or to legal immigrants who serve in the military. Cash or other assistance given to the immigrant victims of natural disasters would not be counted against them.
Critics of the new rule argue that it deviates from longstanding precedent and from Congress’s original intent for the public-charge statute. They also say it violates states’ rights to provide benefits to children and immigrants experiencing short-term crises.
Nearly 20 million children in immigrant families could be affected by the policy changes, according to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation that examined a draft of the new rule that was even broader than the one announced on Saturday. Almost nine in 10 of those children are United States citizens.
“The proposal is clearly intended to deny basic supports like food, health care and housing to lawfully present immigrants and their families — including millions of children and U.S. citizens — who pay taxes, work, go to school and contribute to our country’s economy,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington wrote in April in a letter to Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, the agency that reviews proposed rules before they are published. The mayor of Seattle wrote a similar letter expressing concerns.
In addition to the use of public benefits, the proposed rule also deems certain health conditions — like mental health disorders, heart disease and cancer — to be among the heavily weighed factors. The proposal states that “an alien is at high risk of becoming a public charge if he or she has a medical condition and is unable to show evidence of unsubsidized health insurance.”