The Proposed “Public Charge” Rule and What it Means for Immigrants

By Madylin Reno

The Trump administration's proposed rule on “public charge”, if finalized, would represent a dramatic change to legal immigration in the United States. Public charge, as I wrote about for Shared Justice last year, is a determination given to noncitizens or would-be immigrants whom the Department of Homeland Security deems currently or likely to become dependent on government assistance. A Vox article explained that the proposal “would make it extremely difficult for many immigrants to come to the US or receive green cards if they’re deemed likely to use public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.” If a person is considered to be a public charge, they can be denied admission or permanent status. In rare cases, he or she can even be deported.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a major piece of welfare reform legislation, stipulated that individuals who immigrate to the United States are unable to access federal welfare for their first five years in the country. There are some exceptions for those under 18 years of age who need access to non-cash benefits such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school lunch programs, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In almost all cases, use of these programs did not result in the user being deemed a public charge.

Throughout his campaign and during the earlier months of his administration, President Donald Trump talked about expanding the definition of public charge. I wrote about the fear this created in immigrant communities and how many families were choosing to go hungry to avoid risk of deportation. In late September of this year, President Trump officially proposed the federal rule.

The use of public benefits such as food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, or public housing, as outlined in the September proposal, will be considered in the public charge determination process. Public charge designation is typically given to individuals who depend on the government for more than half of their income. However, the new proposal deems the use of non-cash public benefits worthy of public charge designation, considering these benefits “heavily weighed negative factors.” This proposal applies to those seeking to immigrate to the United States, as well as people with temporary visas seeking to obtain permanent status.

The Impact of the Proposed Rule

When I wrote my first article in 2017, the administration had stated its intention to change the policies surrounding public charge, but had not given an indication as to what this would entail. Despite this, many immigrant families responded in preparation to the proposal, choosing to forgo certain benefits, such as SNAP, in order to protect themselves from deportation in the case of future policy changes.

With the release of the proposed rule, the potential impact is now clear. According to a report by the Center for American Progress,

The regulations proposed by the administration would make it harder for working- and middle-class people to immigrate legally to the United States by denying them green cards and visas based on government predictions that they are “likely” to receive Medicaid coverage or other means-tested public benefits at any time in the future.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 94 percent of noncitizens who entered the U.S. without permanent status will now have at least one factor that could weigh against them in a public charge determination. Forty-two percent of noncitizens will have factors that are deemed “heavily weighted negative factors.”

As a result, many noncitizens will likely disenroll from these benefits rather than face deportation or denial of permanent status. If 15 to 35 percent of noncitizen Medicaid/CHIP households stop receiving their benefits as predicted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, anywhere from 2.1 to 4.9 million individuals—including many children—in America would stop receiving healthcare assistance. This policy, which would threaten to deport immigrant and noncitizen families due only to their need for public assistance, will severely impact the health of immigrant families. Access to food, healthcare, and housing will be inaccessible to people solely because of their desire to seek permanent status in the United States. Such a policy fails to align with the theme throughout scripture of God providing for those who are outsiders and calling on His people to do likewise.

How Should We Respond?

How are Christians called to respond? In my previous article, I wrote about the importance of the Church and community organizations. The critical role that they play is still needed — now more than ever. Churches and local organizations are uniquely situated to cater to the needs of the individual and community in ways that the government simply cannot. Additionally, churches and organizations have to the ability to motivate and mobilize their communities to advocate for the protection of immigrants. An excellent example of this is World Relief, a national organization with 20 offices around the United States that work with local churches and citizens to holistically care for immigrants and refugees. Through their work, they are able to connect these populations with their communities through employment services, counseling, and legal services.

However, it is important to remember that the government is still equipped with a vast amount of resources that churches, organizations, and most individuals cannot match. The government also holds the ultimate authority to determine citizenship and immigration law — something civil society can’t do. When the government does not provide for the welfare of people and the flourishing of families — something the new public charge guidelines will not do — it has violated its sacred duty of upholding public justice. Thus, it is crucial that we, as Christians, hold our government accountable to fulfilling its responsibilities — especially in a time when the emphasis of responsibility to care is often placed only on the church and parachurch ministries.

As we look forward to the coming of Christ during this Advent season, we should turn to the words of the Virgin Mary:

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)

A lived Christian witness to the incarnation of our God must account for the physical bodies that have been redeemed and brought into life with God by the physical coming and death of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ lived, served, and died in a physical body to bring all people — not just the Israelites — into his redemptive plan. The reality that Gentiles, who were outsiders to the Jewish faith, are now adopted in must always be remembered when we are called to care for others. If the proposed public charge is finalized, many families who are financially struggling will not be able to obtain adequate food, healthcare, and other vital services. In light of biblical commands and the incarnation, it is imperative that Christians seek the holistic wellbeing of our sisters and brothers in Christ — no matter their status before a government.

Madylin Reno is a senior 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.