Weaponizing Public Assistance Programs

The public charge designation continues to otherize immigrant and low-income communities

October 4, 2018


On September 21, DHS Secretary Nielsen, signed a proposed rule change which would establish new criteria for categorizing an individual as a “public charge,” essentially, decreasing the likelihood that those categorized as such may obtain legal residency in the United States.

Public charge has historically been used to select out a person who is primarily dependent on the government for more than half of their personal income. The proposed rule change would confer unto the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) enormous discretion over the categorization, while codifying a substantially expanded definition to include any person who uses public benefits for which they are eligible, such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and federal housing assistance. This is important to note because, in its most recent poll, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found that 18% of American Muslims report a household income above $100,000 (compared to 31% of Americans generally), but 33% make less than $30,000 (compared to 24% of Americans generally), a level at or below the federal poverty line, depending on household size, thus proving the significant impact this public charge rule is having on all communities.

The proposed rule is basically a wealth test that would essentially discourage immigration from any families whose household incomes would be less than about $62,750 a year. Additionally, The New England Journal of Medicine published projections that passage of the new rule may result in 1 million newly uninsured people. The proposed calculations for determining how the use of benefit programs would count against a person’s application are complicated, and are likely to be understood by many rather matter-of-factly: do not use public benefits if you wish to stay in the U.S. Taken in this way, the proposed policy stands to disincentivize immigration from lower-income families in poorer countries, while also chilling the use of social services used by immigrant families already in the country, lest they risk losing the chance to receive their green cards.

The proposal must be rejected as part of this administration’s broad-based effort to limit immigration. Public charge embodies the nature of the Republican-sponsored immigration bill which explicitly targeted immigrants without technical skills under the pretense of replacing family-based migration with merit-based migration.

MPAC unequivocally opposes the proposed rule change for the way in which it penalizes and pathologizes certain forms of social dependency, preferences immigration from wealthier families and disincentivizes the use of social services by those with the greatest need and the most vulnerable.

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