Amid a pandemic and an economic recession, families need all the support they can get. But the fear around one little-known immigration policy—the “public charge” rule—has kept many immigrant families from getting the help they need. Though the rule has been part of U.S. immigration law for more than a century, dramatic changes that took effect just weeks before the pandemic hit the U.S. led to widespread fear, concern and confusion among immigrant communities.
Concerns about expanded public charge regulations led many immigrant families to avoid public services, even as the pandemic dramatically increased needs. With immigrants accounting for about 1 in 10 Black people in the United States, about one-third of Latinx people and about two-thirds of Asian American or Pacific Islander people, this “chilling effect” hit families of color hardest.
That expanded policy has been reversed, but a recent poll found that more than three-fourths of people in immigrant families hadn’t heard the policy has changed. As educators and professionals who work with children and their families, you can help simply by doing what educators do: sharing knowledge.
The public charge rule applies within the United States when people who are lawfully present apply for permanent residence (a “green card”). If an immigration official determines that someone is likely to become a public charge—someone who is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence”—the government can deny that person’s application. The public charge rule does not apply to those who already have green cards or to people who are refugees or asylees. It also does not apply to those under special visa categories for orphans or domestic violence survivors or to people who fall within certain immigration categories. Importantly, the public charge policy does not apply when U.S. citizens use safety net programs—including immigrants’ spouses or children who are U.S. citizens.
A Chilling Effect During a Pandemic
During the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) enacted new regulations that drastically expanded the policy. It expanded the public programs considered in public charge determinations, adding three programs (Medicaid, SNAP and “Section 8” housing assistance) that cover millions of families, including many families with some citizen and some noncitizen family members (“mixed-status families”).
Those changes created a chilling effect on immigrant communities, as they were deterred from applying for or stopped using critical health, nutrition and economic supports for which they were eligible. Many immigrant families stopped using Medicaid and SNAP, although the children themselves were U.S. citizens and their use of those programs was never a public charge concern. Research shows this effect extended well beyond the programs mentioned in the expanded policy, to include programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
In March 2021, the Biden Administration reversed that expansion and restored an earlier, much narrower definition of the rule. Under the current rule, most health and social services cannot count against immigrants applying for green cards.
How Educators Can Help
The poll cited above found that a little information can make a big difference. Hearing just once that the Trump public charge policy has ended made half of people in immigrant families more likely to get the help and health care they need. Hearing that information from multiple trusted sources should have an even greater impact. Because educators engage with so many children from immigrant families and are often considered trusted resources, you and your colleagues are in prime positions to pass along this key information about the public charge rule. That’s why DHS asked the U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies to help reach immigrant families with accurate information.
In a nutshell: Immigrant families need to understand that a number of important benefits are not considered by the public charge rule, and parents and guardians should know that accepting those benefits for themselves or their children cannot harm an immigration application. Those benefits include the following:
- any COVID-19 testing, vaccination or treatment, including test kits ordered through COVIDtests.gov
- Medicaid (except institutionalization under the Medicaid Long Term Care Program)
- other health and medical benefits
- emergency medical services
- food stamps (also known as SNAP) and other nutrition and food assistance programs, including food pantries and soup kitchens
- housing programs (Section 8)
- Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program
- child care benefits
- transportation vouchers
- job training programs
- energy assistance
- educational assistance, such as Head Start
- short-term and special purpose cash payments
- short-term, in-patient rehabilitation
Public charge, in other words, should never be the reason why a parent or caregiver refrains from applying for SNAP or public health insurance for themself or their child.
These are some of the few benefits that are considered in a public charge analysis:
- cash assistance for income maintenance
- institutionalization for long-term care at government expense through Medicaid or another public health insurance program
If parents and caregivers in your school community have questions about the public charge policy, they can learn more at keepyourbenefits.org or through the Protecting Immigrant Families coalition. For specific advice about their own family’s immigration status or applications, caregivers should consult their local legal aid or legal services office for free immigration advice. With the active involvement of concerned educators, more children in immigrant families can get the help they need.