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Millions Will Feel Chilling Effects of U.S. Public-Charge Rule That Is Also Likely to Reshape Legal Immigration
August 2019

Millions Will Feel Chilling Effects of U.S. Public-Charge Rule That Is Also Likely to Reshape Legal Immigration

SNAP commentary USDA Flickr
U.S. Department of Agriculture

The public-charge rule issued this week by the Trump administration will have profound effects on legal admissions to the United States and on use of public benefits by millions of legal noncitizens and the U.S. citizens with whom they live. The rule gives the government broad discretion to deny admission to a large share of those who currently enter based on family relationships. At the same time, the complex new standards for determining when an immigrant is likely to become a public charge could cause a significant share of the nearly 23 million noncitizens and U.S. citizens in immigrant families using public benefits to disenroll, the Migration Policy Institute estimates. These chilling effects may be broadened with the expected release of a new proposed regulation expected to expand the grounds for deporting legally present noncitizens using public benefits.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) rule dramatically expands the circumstances under which individuals can be denied admission and green cards based on a finding that they are likely at any time to become a public charge. Under the new standards, replacing guidelines in place since 1999, immigration officials will look at factors including the person’s age, health, family status, education, skills, assets, resources, role as a caregiver, and whether the person is using or has used in the past three years one or more of a set of public benefits. The benefits list includes cash assistance, Medicaid (but not for children or pregnant women), Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and housing subsidies.

The rule will foreseeably have immigration effects and public-benefits effects.  The immigration effects will occur as the administration denies admissions and adjustments of status. The public-benefits effects will occur because millions of immigrants and their family members will be chilled from applying for or staying enrolled in public benefits program. According to MPI analysis of U.S Census Bureau data, the population that could feel the rule’s “chilling effects” and disenroll includes 10 million noncitizens—47 percent of the noncitizen population in the United States. These noncitizens live in families with 12 million U.S.-citizen family members—nearly two-thirds of them children, and chilling effects will extend to their citizen family members. And it will fall particularly hard on the two largest racial/ethnic immigrant groups: Latinos and Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Approximately 16.4 million people live in benefit-receiving families with at least one Latino noncitizen and 3 million live in such families with at least one AAPI noncitizen.

Public-interest groups, immigrant-rights advocates, state and local governments, social-service providers, and others worked actively to seek to urge the administration to not expand public-charge standards: More than 266,000 comments were filed during the rule’s public comment period. But the final rule looks much like the proposed rule first unveiled in October 2018.

Understanding the Rule’s Immigration Effects

Under the rule, when an individual seeks admission to the country or adjustment of status, immigration officials will look at a set of factors to decide if he or she should be denied as being likely to become a public charge. For example, being between ages 18-61 will be a positive factor; being younger or older than that will be a negative factor. Having annual income at or above 125 percent of the federal poverty line will be a positive factor; having income below that will be negative. Health, education, family size, income, resources, and public benefits use will all be considered. Certain factors will be heavily weighted—for example, having income or resources of at least 250 percent of the poverty line will be weighted positively, while current or recent use of the specified public benefits will be heavily weighted negatively.

It is impossible to know who will be denied admission or status adjustment under these criteria, but MPI analysis points to the large share of applicants at risk of denial. Using Census data to review the characteristics of recent green-card holders, MPI found 43 percent were not employed or enrolled in school; 39 percent did not speak English well or at all; 33 percent had incomes below 125 percent of the poverty line; 25 percent lacked a high school diploma; and 12 percent had incomes below 125 percent of poverty and were either under 18 or over 61.  Among recent green-card holders, 69 percent had at least one of these negative factors; 43 percent had at least two; and 17 percent had at least three (see Figure 1). Most applicants would fall into a gray area with some positive and some negative factors, underscoring how discretionary the process may be.

Figure 1. Share of Recent Green-Card Holders with Negative Factors, (%), 2012-16

Source: Randy Capps, Mark Greenberg, Michael Fix, and Jie Zong, Gauging the Impact of DHS’ Proposed Public-Charge Rule on U.S. Immigration (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2018), www.migrationpolicy.org/research/impact-dhs-public-charge-rule-immigration.

Some groups are more likely to have negative factors, notably women, the elderly, and children. (The final rule may mitigate somewhat the impact on women as being a primary caregiver is considered a positive factor.) And the effects are likely to be less for Europe, Canada, and Oceana, where 27 percent had two or more negative factors; impacts will be far greater for Central America and Mexico, where 60 percent had two or more such factors.

Ultimately, the immigration effects of the rule will depend on how extensively officials use the criteria to deny admissions and status adjustments, but it seems clear that there will be the potential for dramatic changes in admissions decisions to the United States.

Mapping the Rule’s Possible Chilling Effects

The rule is likely to make millions of people in immigrant households—both citizens and noncitizens—fearful of receiving public benefits. Their reluctance can be described as “chilling effects”—i.e., people disenrolling from or not applying for benefits for themselves and other family members because of fear that benefit receipt will have negative immigration consequences.

As a formal matter, the rule only affects applicants for admission or adjustment of status, so it should not have immigration consequences for the great majority of green-card holders, naturalized citizens, or members of the families of those seeking admission or status adjustment. Further, applicants for admission to the United States are unlikely to have received public benefits in this country in the recent past, and individuals seeking status adjustment will not have been eligible for most of the benefits at issue.

However, the confusion and uncertainty created by the rule in the current immigration climate will likely lead to much larger effects, along with the fact that the benefits at issue affect far more people—under prior guidelines, only cash assistance and long-term institutionalization were considered.

Research on welfare reform’s effects in the mid-1990s makes clear that substantial disenrollment in the millions should be anticipated. Many commenters on the proposed rule pointed to anecdotal evidence that drops in participation were already occurring in the context of reports about the proposed rule. And, a recent Urban Institute report, based on its nationally representative December 2018 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey, found that about 20 percent of adults in low-income families with one or more noncitizen members without a green card either did not apply for, or withdrew from participation in noncash benefit programs in 2018 because they were fearful of the immigration consequences. Adults in immigrant families who had heard “a lot” about the proposed public-charge rule were even more likely (31 percent) to avoid noncash benefits.

To estimate the potential scope of the chilling effects, In 2018, MPI analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s pooled 2014-16 American Community Survey (ACS), examining use of the four major means-tested public benefits programs that are tracked in the survey: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SSI, SNAP, and Medicaid.

In the wake of the release of the final rule, MPI’s slightly updated estimates reveal that:

  • Twenty-nine percent of noncitizens reported receiving at least one of the four means-tested benefits that now will be considered in a public-charge determination, and 47 percent live in a family in which one or more members receive such benefits. This percentage compares with 3 percent of noncitizens using only either TANF or SSI, the two major federal benefits programs that were considered under the earlier standard.
  • More than 10.3 million noncitizen adults and children live in families in which at least one person receives either cash or noncash benefits. When their U.S.-citizen family members—including 7.6 million children and 4.7 million adults—are counted, the number rises to 22.7 million—a number that represents MPI’s best proxy for the total population that could feel the chilling effects of the new rule.
  • Chilling effects are likely to be felt most broadly in states with large immigrant populations and those with relatively inclusive public benefit policies (i.e., higher income-eligibility thresholds for TANF and Medicaid, and state-supported nutrition, health, and assistance programs for immigrants ineligible for benefits under federal welfare law). For example, almost 30 percent (6.7 million) of the 22.7 million noncitizens and relatives using one of the four major benefit programs reside in California; and 10 percent (2.2 million) are in New York. (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Share of Noncitizens Whose Benefits Use Could Be Considered in a Public-Charge Determination, United States, California, and New York, (%), 2014-16

Note: Cash benefits include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI); noncash benefits include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Medicaid.
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2014–16 American Community Survey (ACS) data.

  • More than 60 percent of noncitizens in benefits-receiving families are employed. Public benefits-use levels for immigrants and the U.S. born alike are largely driven by use of SNAP and Medicaid/Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)—programs often viewed as work supports.

Disenrollment of immigrant families from SNAP and Medicaid could reduce child well-being and development. Prior research shows that by reducing food insecurity and improving health, SNAP lays a foundation for children’s academic success and long-term economic self-sufficiency. Other research shows that children with health coverage, whether through private insurance or public programs such as Medicaid, have fewer health problems, better academic outcomes, and a greater chance of being economically secure and productive as adults. Despite the fact that DHS’ final rule excludes Medicaid use by children under 21 and pregnant women in public-charge considerations, history has shown that chilling effects extend beyond targeted populations.

Beyond the impacts felt by individuals and families, the Trump administration changes are likely to have substantial effects on local economies due to loss of food stamp revenue, and on publicly supported health-care systems due to reduction of health coverage and increased reliance on emergency rooms by the uninsured.

It is logical to assume that the chilling effects seen to date may be reinforced by the current climate and by the administration’s enforcement-focused policies at the border, its highly publicized worksite enforcement operations, and the anticipated announcement of a Justice Department rule that would expand the grounds to deport legally present noncitizens for their use of public benefits.

Taken as a whole, the public-charge rule stands to slow the integration of immigrant families, overturn state choices regarding the services they have opted to provide to their residents, and to alter the composition of future immigration to the United States—all without the benefit of endorsement or direction from Congress.