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Advocates Say the “Public Charge” Income Test Threatens to Scare Millions Away from Health, Housing and Nutrition Assistance

SEATTLE, Washington — On Monday, January 27, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the Trump administration to make it more difficult for low-income immigrants seeking to come to or trying to remain legally in the United States. The Protecting Immigrant Families – Washington coalition condemns the so-called “public charge” rule, which would effectively impose an income test on family-based immigration and scare millions away from health, housing and nutrition assistance.

Up until now, several court injunctions had prevented the rule from going into effect since it was announced in Fall 2019. In a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court lifted the last nationwide injunction. The Trump Administration has not announced when the rule will officially go into effect.

“This regulation says that, if you’re not white and you’re not wealthy, you’re not welcome in America — that’s an attack on the ideals that made our country great, and whatever a judge says, it’s wrong,” said OneAmerica’s Executive Director Rich Stolz.

People who are worried this decision may affect their families should know:

  • As of January 27, DHS has not announced when the new public charge rule will go into effect.
  • The rule does not affect all immigrants. Refugees, asylees, survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and other serious crimes, and other “humanitarian” immigrants are not affected. Lawful permanent residents (or “green card holders”) are not affected unless they leave the U.S. for over 180 days and seek to reenter. Protecting Immigrant Families has a great resource to know if you may be affected.
  • Use of public benefits will not automatically make someone a public charge. Most immigrants who are subject to public charge are not eligible for the programs listed in the rule. Immigration officials must look at all your circumstances, including age, health, income, assets, education and family size, in determining whether you are likely to become a public charge in the future. Positive factors, like having a job or health insurance, can be weighed against negative factors, like having used certain benefits or having a health condition.
  • Many programs are not included in the public charge test. Life-saving food and nutrition programs like WIC, CHIP, school lunches, food banks, shelters, child care assistance and many more are not included in the public charge test. Health care programs used by children and pregnant women are also not included. Health, housing, nutrition and other non-cash benefits provided by state and local governments are also not included.

The new rule broadens the criteria by which immigration authorities may deny permanent resident status (a green card) if an applicant legally uses essential federally-funded public services like Medicaid, Section 8, and food stamps.

The rule would also effectively impose an income test on immigration, making it harder for families who earn less than 250% of the federal poverty line to stay together in the U.S. permanently – a bar that a third of the entire U.S. population wouldn’t be able to clear. The income-based factor in the proposed rule means that immigration officials could deny individuals who work in important but low-paid jobs — such as home health workers and custodians — the ability to remain in the United States or rejoin families here.

Trump’s proposal also outlines other negative factors that could make it easier for immigrants to be deemed “public charges,” such as not having a college education, speaking English with limited proficiency, or simply being under age 18 or over age 62.

Publicity surrounding the rule will reverberate in all immigrant communities – not just those who are applying for their green cards. Even if the rule doesn’t apply to them, many more immigrants will be more likely to avoid services because of concern about compromising their immigration status. Public charge law is complex and confusing on its own, and earlier draft proposals of the new rule, publicized in the media, were different from the final version. As a result, there’s a lot of confusion about who is subject to public charge and what benefits could be considered negative factors. Parents may be afraid to take their children to the doctor for pediatric vaccinations, and pregnant women may be discouraged from accepting breastfeeding and nutrition assistance, even though these programs are not considered part of “public charge.”

“We are deeply disappointed by today’s Supreme Court’s decision that allows the Trump Administration to implement its ‘public charge’ rule while the legal cases against the rule continue in the federal courts. This rule will place unfair barriers in the way of immigrant community members seeking to become lawful permanent residents or obtain certain other immigration statuses,” said Jorge L. Barón, Executive Director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

Coalition members are advising immigrants who are fearful to get legal advice before refusing food, health, or any other type of assistance they are receiving. Many immigrants are NOT subject to public charge at all. Anyone subject to the rule will have until the effective date to act before the changes take effect, and will not be penalized for benefits they received legally before the rule changed. DHS has not yet announced when the changes will take effect.

“Using Medicaid, SNAP, and other benefits can help people become healthier, stronger, and more financially stable in the future. Today’s Supreme Court ruling is a deeply disappointing setback. However, with the right information, you can make an informed decision about what is best for you and your family,” said Janet Varon, Executive Director of Northwest Health Law Advocates, a coalition member that advocates for access to health care for Washington residents.

For more information about “public charge” and if it applies to you, click here.

Resources are available in English, Spanish, Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese, French, Hindi, Korean, Oromo, Somali, Tigrinya and Vietnamese.

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