What is Public Charge and How Does It Affect Immigrant Families?

In January of this year, a leaked draft of President Trump’s Executive Order on Protecting Taxpayer Resources by Ensuring Our Immigration Laws Promote Accountability and Responsibility revealed that, among other directives, he would call for the expansion of public charge. Public charge is a determination given to an immigrant whom the Department of Homeland Security deems currently or likely to become dependent on government assistance. Public charge status applies to those who lawfully immigrate to the United States or apply for permanent residence. It looks at age, health, family status, and education, as well as use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and long-term use of Medicaid. If an immigrant is determined to be a “public charge,” they may be denied admission, permanent status, or (in rare cases) deported.

In Section 3 of the draft Executive Order, the Secretary of Homeland Security is ordered to “rescind any field guidance” on public charge grounds and replace it with new guidance that follows the order to “identify and remove, as expeditiously as possible, any alien who has become a public charge and is subject to removal.” The Secretary is also instructed to propose a new rule outlining who is inadmissible or deportable on the grounds of public charge.

In other words, immigrants who have lawfully entered the United States could be penalized for seeking assistance for their families. Many immigrant families using programs that are available to them, such as school lunch programs or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), now fear that the use of these programs would render them a public charge under new rules and result in their deportation. While this Executive Order was only leaked and not officially signed, the fear it has stirred up among immigrant communities is very real. The proposed expansion of public charge, which aligns with the administration’s new policy to shift to a merit-based immigration system, only serves to further disadvantage under-resourced immigrants.

Implications of Expanded Public Charge

Title IV of the 1996 welfare reform bill (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996) prohibits immigrants from receiving federal assistance for their first five years in the United States. However, programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and school lunch programs are not included under this law. This allows poor immigrant families, who are still within the five-year window, to receive services that help them to meet the basic needs of their children. According to a Washington Post article, immigrants are almost never deported for program use unless they engaged in deception when they initially immigrated. The draft of the president’s Executive Order called for a reversal of this practice.

In a September campaign speech on immigration, then-candidate Trump called for the deportation of “criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, [and] public charges.” The president expanded these ideas in the Executive Order draft and issued a Presidential Memorandum in March of this year. This memorandum directed the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to issue new rules to enforce the denial of admission and deportation of public charges. These rules are also ordered to supercede any that have previously been established.

Public charge is a determination given to an immigrant whom the Department of Homeland Security deems currently or likely to become dependent on government assistance.

For example, under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (referred to as SNAP or food stamps), qualified children under the age of 18 are eligible to receive SNAP benefits, even if their parents are still within the 5-year waiting period. In the wake of the president’s comments on immigration and public benefits, however, many immigrant families began withdrawing from SNAP and going without food out of fear of deportation. In March, a Washington Post article included an interview with a SNAP outreach coordinator who discussed the uptick in withdrawals from SNAP by immigrant families. “‘I get calls from concerned parents all the time: “should I take my kids out of the program?”’ [she] said. ‘They’re risking hunger out of fear… and my heart just breaks for them.’”

Another woman interviewed in the article, the executive director of a community organization who chose to remain anonymous, spoke of cases where families won’t enroll their children in school lunch programs. These families are not engaging in illegal use of public benefits; they are law-abiding members of their communities who are trying to care for their children in the best way possible. With the potential extension of public charge, however, they are faced with an impossible decision between nutrition for their children and security for their family.

With the biblical call to seek justice for the sojourner and love our neighbors as ourselves, we cannot allow conditions where immigrant families forgo feeding their children for fear of deportation.

What Does a Public Justice Response Require?

Families are one of the most fundamental institutions in society and ought be respected and protected by government. However, government violates public justice when it restricts families from fulfilling their responsibilities. In this instance, expanding the definition of public charge would only serve to make it more difficult for immigrant families to provide for their children. In an article for Christianity Today, church leader Mark DeYmaz writes of the tension many feel between the biblical mandate to care for immigrants (citing Ex. 22:21; 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 27:19) and to respect our earthly laws and the leaders who execute them (Luke 20:23-25; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). Advocating to change or prevent policies we believe to be unjust is the key to living in this tension, but providing immediate and tangible care is also crucial.

Federal funding is vital for many programs that immigrants rely upon. Children and pregnant mothers, for example, are allowed access to CHIP and Medicaid. These services are distributed by states, but funding is provided by the federal government, and 29 states and the District of Columbia took advantage of the funds to provide for women and children. With the threat of expanded public charge, though, state governments become a place to work towards justice for immigrant communities. While immigrants face heavy restrictions on federal aid in their first five years, states are free to provide aid with their own funding.

...expanding the definition of public charge would only serve to make it more difficult for immigrant families to provide for their children.

Several states have stepped in to fill the gap in federal assistance during the five-year window. Illinois’s Department of Healthcare and Family Services, for example, has implemented the All Kids program. All Kids is a “program for children who need comprehensive, affordable, health insurance, regardless of immigration status or health condition.” Based on the income of the custodial parent, All Kids helps cover needs such as doctor's visits, eyeglasses, immunizations, and physical therapy. California also has sought to care for immigrant families through their Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI), which they created after the signing of the welfare reform bill in 1996. While these state programs do not negate the need for federal funding for programs, supporting the work of state programs while advocating for similar policies in other states is part of our response as citizens.

Non-profits and churches also have important work to do when it comes to serving vulnerable immigrant families and, similar to state and local governments, don’t face as many restrictions. Many non-profits offer services to immigrants who can’t afford them or don’t qualify for federal assistance, such as the Esperanza Center Health Services Clinic run by Catholic Charities in Baltimore. Esperanza Center Health Services Clinic provides free medical and dental services to immigrants in the Baltimore area, and other groups run by Catholic Charities provide legal and educational services.

Churches are well-suited to connect immigrants with the appropriate services. Even more than that, they are well-equipped to help immigrants form personal relationships and build bonds of trust in their communities. There are even some churches that have the capacity to provide services. Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, which provides legal and family location services to immigrants, is one example.

Discerning the proper response to immigration and welfare issues can be difficult. With the existence of legal restrictions comes tough decisions. Access to welfare for immigrants is already difficult to attain and expanding the definition of public charge would further hinder the ability of vulnerable families to have their needs met. Christian citizens have a role to play in advocating for policies that protect these families, even when it may not serve our immediate interests. As we support policies that promote the wellbeing of immigrants, we must also seek to bolster the services offered by state and local governments, nonprofits, and churches. A coordinated and robust public justice response that seeks to love the immigrant is desperately needed, and we have a responsibility to be a part of it.

-Madylin Reno is a junior International Relations major at Wheaton College (IL), where she has served on Student Government. She is often found debating foreign policy and searching for breakfast food.