top of page

Capitolworks: Just the Facts…The Public Charge Rule: What Is It, and Who Does It Affect?

Next week, the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “Public Charge” rule will go into effect. What is the Public Charge rule, and why should I care?

In order to understand the current Public Charge rule, it is necessary to understand the history behind it. As early as 1882, U.S. immigration law included exclusionary regulations designed to limit government spending on immigrants. Under these regulations, an immigrant’s application for admission or an adjustment to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status could be denied if they are “likely at any time to become a public charge,” per Section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The INA, however, does not define the term “public charge;” it is up to the discretion of federal agencies to determine what this means.

In 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now a part of DHS) issued guidance that further defined “public charge.” This definition included any individual who was or is likely to become dependent on public cash assistance. The 1999 ruling made a few important exceptions; they would not consider use of Medicaid, SNAP, subsidized housing, or other non-cash-based public assistance to affect an immigrant’s public charge status. They made these specific exceptions so that immigrant families would not be forced to compromise health and nutritional wellness in order to preserve their opportunity to immigrate.

This changed in 2019. In August, DHS published a new definition of “public charge” in the federal register. They expanded the definition to include nearly all public benefit programs. Starting next week, on October 15th, 2019, any immigrant who receives one or more public benefits for more than 1 year in a 3-year period, will be considered a public charge. This period of time will be aggregated from all benefits used. For example, DHS will consider a family who uses two benefits for one month to have accumulated two months of public benefits.

Who do these recent changes affect? This rule affects all individuals intending to immigrate to the United States, as well as all immigrants in the United States who are seeking to become Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs), or “green card holders.” It should be noted that DHS has made an exception to the public charge rule for humanitarian immigrants, namely refugees and asylees. Additionally, DHS makes an exception for benefits received by family members of the immigrant applicant; therefore, children and families of immigrant applicants can receive any necessary benefits without it affecting the public charge ruling.

With all of this said, the question remains, why should everyone care about this change in policy? Why take our time to explain this seemingly obscure rule? The answer is that all policies, laws, and rules ultimately impact all of society. It may take a while to feel the impacts of such changes, but each of us will feel the long-term effects of this rule.

Whether this new “public charge” definition is good or bad, right or wrong, it won’t be without its impact. If a significant population within our borders is forced to go without food, health care, housing, etc. it will undoubtedly become a public health concern. Underlying this debate are significant moral and philosophical views on immigration, but when we focus solely on the potential effects of this policy, it would be impractical to think that the general public’s health and well-being will not be compromised when so many will go without access to basic human needs. That is why we should care about the “public charge” rule. This policy change matters to us all.

*Contributing Author: Laura June Wolfgang Keppley

bottom of page