Church leaders deplore ‘public charge’ rule change to legal immigration
The Trump administration announced on Aug. 12 that it is moving forward with one of its most aggressive steps yet to restrict legal immigration: Denying green cards to many migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.
Federal law already requires those seeking to become permanent residents or gain legal status to prove they will not be a burden to the United States—a “public charge,” in government-speak—but the new rules detail a broader range of programs that could disqualify them.
It is part of a dramatic overhaul of the nation’s immigration system that the administration has been working to put in place, despite legal pushback. While most attention has focused on President Trump’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, including recent raids in Mississippi and the continued separation of migrant parents from their children, the new rules target people who entered the United States legally and are seeking permanent status.
Trump is trying to move the United States toward a system that focuses on immigrants’ skills instead of emphasizing the reunification of families.
Under the new rules, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will now weigh whether applicants have received public assistance along with other factors like education, income and health to determine whether to grant legal status. The rules will take effect in mid-October. They do not apply to U.S. citizens, though immigrants related to the citizens may be subject to them.
President Trump is trying to move the United States toward a system that focuses on immigrants’ skills instead of emphasizing the reunification of families.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the rule change will ensure those who come to the country do not become a burden, though they pay taxes.
“We want to see people coming to this country who are self-sufficient,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “That’s a core principle of the American dream. It’s deeply embedded in our history, and particularly our history related to legal immigration.”
Migrants make up a small percentage of those who get public benefits. In fact, many are ineligible for such benefits because of their immigration status.
According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, low-income immigrants who are not citizens use Medicaid, food aid, cash assistance and Supplemental Security Income, or S.S.I., at a lower rate than comparable low-income native-born adults. Non-citizen immigrants represent 6.5 percent of those participating in Medicaid and 8.8 percent of those receiving food assistance.
Immigrant rights groups strongly criticized the changes, warning the rules would scare immigrants away from asking for needed help. And they voiced concern the rules give officials too much authority to decide whether someone is likely to need public assistance in the future.
The Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center said it would file a lawsuit, calling the new rules an attempt to redefine the legal immigration system “in order to disenfranchise communities of color and favor the wealthy.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long argued against the rule change and in September 2018 said such action would “prevent families from accessing important medical and social services vital to public health and welfare.” The chairmen of two U.S.C.C.B. committees reiterated the bishops’ opposition to the proposed rule in a statement on Aug. 13.
“We have already seen the culture of fear that the anticipation of this rule has created in our communities. Ultimately, we believe that this rule is in tension with the dignity of the person and the common good that all of us are called to support,” said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Tex., the chair of the Committee on Migration, and Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., the chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. in a statement following the announcement said the policy “is a direct assault on the American immigration system and threatens one of its core principles: family unity.”
U.S. bishops: “We believe that this rule is in tension with the dignity of the person and the common good that all of us are called to support.”
Since the rule had been expected and because of the “great fear and anxiety” it caused, some immigrant families had refrained from asking for needed government help for health care, food and housing, said Anna Gallagher, the organization's executive director.
“This strategy to suppress family immigration has significant public health and safety implications as families worry about meeting new financial hurdles,” she added.
David Skorton, the president and chief executive officer of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said, “The consequences of this action will be to potentially exacerbate illnesses and increase the costs of care when their condition becomes too severe to ignore.
“This change will worsen existing health inequities and disparities, cause further harm to many underserved and vulnerable populations and increase costs to the health care system overall, which will affect all patients,” he said in a statement.
Mary Haddad, R.S.M., the president and C.E.O. of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, also criticized the rule change: “CHA is extremely disappointed that the administration has finalized a ‘public charge’ rule that will punish legal immigrants for receiving Medicaid and other vital assistance when they seek to change their status. As CHA stated when the rule was first proposed, and as our own studies have shown, the rule will have a devastating impact on legal immigrants and their families as well as those providing care to them.”
She added in a statement released on Aug. 12:
We believe final implementation of this rule will lead to millions of immigrants legally present in the United States losing their health coverage or choosing not to enroll. The ranks of the uninsured will grow, hospitals will face rising costs for uncompensated care and public health will be adversely affected. These consequences directly contradict our government’s interest in protecting the health and well-being of the nation as well as the Catholic health ministry’s Gospel mandate and mission to care for the most vulnerable.
But Mr. Cuccinelli defended the move, insisting the administration was not rejecting long-held American values.
Pressed on the poem by Emma Lazarus emblazoned below the Statue of Liberty that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he told reporters at the White House: “I’m certainly not prepared to take anything down off the Statue of Liberty.”
But in an interview released on Aug. 13, Mr. Cuccinelli indeed offered a revision of the famous poem. “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?” reporter Rachel Martin asked him on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”
Ken Cuccinelli: “‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.’”
“They certainly are: ‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,’” he replied. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed—very interesting timing.”
A new Pew Research Center survey released Monday found the American public is broadly critical of the administration’s handling of the wave of migrants at the southern border, with nearly two-thirds of Americans—65 percent—saying the federal government is doing a very bad or somewhat bad job. The survey found broad support for developing a pathway to legal status for immigrants living in the country illegally.
On average, 544,000 people apply for green cards every year, with about 382,000 falling into categories that would be subject to the new review, according to the government. Guidelines in use since 1999 refer to a “public charge” as someone primarily dependent on cash assistance, income maintenance or government support.
Under the new rules, the Department of Homeland Security has redefined a public charge as someone who is “more likely than not” to receive public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. If someone uses two benefits, that is counted as two months. And the definition has been broadened to include Medicaid, housing assistance and food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Following the publication of the proposed rules last fall, the Homeland Security Department received 266,000 public comments, more than triple the average number. It made a series of amendments to the final rules as a result.
For example, women who are pregnant and on Medicaid or who need public assistance will not be subject to the new rules during pregnancy or for 60 days after giving birth. The Medicare Part D low-income subsidy also won’t be considered a public benefit. And benefits received by children until the age of 21 will not be considered. Nor will emergency medical assistance, school lunch programs, foster care or adoption, student loans and mortgages, food pantries, homeless shelters or disaster relief.
Active U.S. military members are also exempt, as are refugees and asylum seekers. And the rules will not be applied retroactively, officials said.
Green card hopefuls will be required to submit three years of federal tax returns in addition to a history of employment. If immigrants have private health insurance, that will weigh heavily in their favor.
The new public assistance threshold, taken together with higher requirements for education, work skills and health, will make it more difficult for immigrants to qualify for green cards, advocates say.
“Without a single change in the law by Congress, the Trump public charge rules mean many more U.S. citizens are being and will be denied the opportunity to live together in the U.S. with their spouses, children and parents,“ said Ur Jaddou, a former Citizenship and Immigration Services chief counsel who is now the director of the DHS Watch, a project run by an immigrant advocacy group. “These are not just small changes. They are big changes with enormous consequences for U.S. citizens.”