The Trump administration on Wednesday published its proposed changes to the public charge rule, which would penalize immigrants seeking permanent status for using certain public benefits. The draft rule is undoubtedly serious: It discriminates against families, has accelerated a "chilling effect" already hindering program enrollment, and marks the next step in the president's ongoing immigrant crackdown.
However, to prevent more low-income immigrant families from going without food and financial assistance, advocates are hoping to dispel confusion: "Public charge" applies only to those entering the country with a visa or hoping to acquire a green card, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Yet, as the Fresno Bee and other local outlets report, many legal immigrants are already fearful.
A report from the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that 24 million people will feel a "chilling effect," meaning they will be too frightened to accept benefits—even if they are not directly impacted by the rule. Karen Farley, executive director of the California WIC Association, says that misinformation has contributed to this fear: Immigrants have asked to be removed from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, which is not included in the rule, citing faulty advice from their attorneys.
The rule could impede family based immigration as we know it, but its perceived effects are already widespread—and perhaps even more dangerous. Amid this panic, here are the key takeaways from immigrant law and public-benefit experts.
- Immigrants currently living in the United States who are seeking green cards, or those applying for entry to join their families, will now be less likely to secure entry or permanent status if they accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Section 8 housing vouchers, or non-emergency Medicaid. (Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were already included under established law.)
- The rule will not apply to refugees, asylum seekers, protected groups, or green card holders. This doesn't mean it won't affect many more people in practice; for example, undocumented parents fearing retribution may pass up benefits that are crucial for their children, the California WIC Association says. "It will go beyond the actually impacted population to affect anybody who's fearful that the rule might apply to them," according to Gabrielle Lessard, senior policy attorney at the Immigration Law Center.
- Having accepted SNAP or TANF does not mean an immigrant will be immediately denied permanent status. Some positive factors—such as a higher income level or an affidavit of support—can outweigh these negatives, although experts say poor families are still less likely to win out. "It's related to a whole constellation of factors," Lessard says. "Just getting a benefit is not necessary fatal."
- This is just a proposal; no one will be penalized for accepting benefits at this point, and the rule will not be applied retroactively. Advocates predict the draft could take months to finalize. Moreover, organizations like WIC say they intend to use the public comment period to fight back.