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The Far-Reaching Effect of the Trump Administration's Proposed Changes to the 'Public Charge' Rule

A new analysis concludes the proposed changes could affect over 175 million people.
Immigrants wave flags after being sworn in as U.S. citizens in naturalization ceremonies on July 26th, 2007, in Pomona, California.

Immigrants wave flags after being sworn in as U.S. citizens in naturalization ceremonies on July 26th, 2007, in Pomona, California.

Last fall, the Trump administration officially proposed changes to an immigration regulation most often referred to as the "public charge" rule. Under current immigration law, the United States government can and does deny green cards and visas to anyone who "is likely at any time to become a public charge," defined as anyone who might someday end up in a nursing home or dependent on a cash assistance program.

The changes, put forth by the Department of Homeland Security (assuming they were adopted by the Department of State, which handles temporary visas and applications for lawful permanent residence), would expand the list of government programs that would render a visitor ineligible for entry to the U.S. In other words, applicants for green cards or visas could be denied if officials concluded they were likely to use food stamps, federal housing or rental assistance, Medicaid, or Medicare Part D. The rule change would also identify factors that would "generally weigh heavily in favor of finding that an alien is likely to become a charge." Among those factors: medical conditions that might make it difficult for a person to attend school or work. While most news coverage of the proposed changes has suggested they could affect fewer than 400,000 people every year, an analysis published Tuesday put that number much higher.

Center for American Progress researcher Shawn Fremstad estimates that, if the Department of State does indeed adapt this definition, the changes could affect 900,000 potential immigrants to the U.S. and over 176 million potential non-immigrants (mostly temporary visitors) each year. While most all of these people are subject to the current public charge test, one group—those who are already in the U.S. and wish to apply for a longer visa or change in status—would now be subject to the rule.

It's not clear how many potential immigrants and non-immigrants might fail this new public charge test, but Fremstad calculates that between 17 and 61 percent of otherwise eligible potential immigrants could fail the test. The changes might be particularly devastating for family members of U.S. citizens—every year, the Department of State issues over 240,000 green cards to spouses, children, parents, and immediate relatives of citizens and about 205,000 visas to other eligible family members. Meanwhile, over 265,000 spouses or family members of U.S. citizens converted to legal permanent resident status in 2017. All of these people would be subject to the new public charge rule.

The revised rule would also require officials to consider whether an applicant for a visa or green card had ever utilized a safety net program. While most of the people affected by this change have never utilized the U.S. social safety net—even legal immigrants are barred from applying for most government aid programs—there are two particularly vulnerable demographic groups that may face hard decisions under this new rule: children and pregnant women.

"Under a federal law passed by Congress in 2009, pregnant women and children who are lawfully residing in the United States are eligible for Medicaid in most states even if they do not have green cards—as long as they meet the same eligibility requirements that apply to citizens," Fremstad writes. "These groups will be particularly at risk under the revised ... proposal. If adopted, the proposal would force pregnant women and children who are lawfully residing in the United States without green cards to choose between health care and a future green card."

Fremstad's analysis also identifies one other demographic group that stands to lose under this proposal: employers who rely on non-citizens could have a much harder time obtaining and extending visas for their workers.