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The Trump administration’s proposed changes to the ‘public charge’ rule lack merit

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The Statue of Liberty is seen in New York Harbor.

“Give me your tired, your poor,” Emma Lazarus’ well-known poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty says. And for much of its history, the United States has welcomed many poor immigrants. That began to change in 1882 when the government started evaluating whether prospective immigrants were “liable to become a public charge” (LPC) dependent on government assistance before granting them admission into the country. Immigration officials especially and disproportionately used the so-called LPC clause to justify denying admission to women, children, and immigrants from Asia, southern and eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. In recent years, the government has counted immigrants who have received public cash assistance for income maintenance (e.g., Supplemental Security Income) or who were institutionalized for long-term nursing home care at government expense as “public charges.”

The Trump administration is now poised to make a far-reaching and consequential change in the public charge rule by further expanding the types of assistance the government considers when determining whether an immigrant is likely to be a public charge, and therefore inadmissible. The administration has proposed that participation in many popular and essential programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), public housing (including the housing choice voucher program), Medicaid, and the Medicare Part D program would also make immigrants ineligible for admission.

The administration has also proposed lowering the threshold for the amount and duration of assistance required to trigger the public charge determination. As proposed, the rule change would apply to a much greater number and variety of immigrants, including those seeking admission to the U.S. and permanent residence (i.e., a Green Card), and could also be used to invoke deportation proceedings. It would also disproportionately impact poor and minority immigrants.

Ostensibly, the justification for the proposed changes to the public charge rule is to reduce expenditures on public welfare benefits by reducing the likelihood that immigrants admitted on a permanent basis will use these benefits. The documentation of the proposed rule change provided by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that the changes would result in about a $2.25 billion annual reduction in transfer payments from federal and state governments.

However, this justification lacks merit because it fails to account for the substantial costs to individuals and communities that will likely occur should this proposed rule change take effect. Many non-citizens currently living in the U.S. would undoubtedly withdraw from the benefit programs targeted by the proposed public charge rule, significantly reducing their access to adequate nutrition, housing and healthcare. Because benefits are often received at the household level, many of the millions of households with a mixture of non-citizens and citizens will likely disenroll from benefit programs as a unit.

As a result, and as is already being seen and reported on, citizens who are legally entitled to these benefits will go without the support necessary for succeeding in school, staying healthy, and engaging in the workforce. These direct effects on individuals and households will spread throughout our communities in predictable ways. The DHS, for example, has already acknowledged (in its cost-benefit analysis of the rule) that the rule has the potential for adversely affecting public health (e.g., through the spread of communicable diseases) and the economy (e.g., by impeding educational attainment and productivity).

We therefore encourage individuals and communities across Minnesota to speak up for their immigrant friends, coworkers, and neighbors. You can learn more by reading the proposed rule change at the Office of the Federal Register (DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012) and by visiting the websites of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, the James H. Binger Center for New Americans, and the Immigration Response Team at the U of M.

The authors are faculty members and students at the University of Minnesota; Stephen Meili, Cynthia Pando and John Keller also contributed to this commentary. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the authors’ employer. The authors are also involved with the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Workshop, “Migration and Migrants in Terrifying Times,” at the University of Minnesota.  On Dec. 13, they will be holding an event from 6:30 to  8:30 p.m. in Coffman Theater in Coffman Memorial Union. This event is free and open to the public, and will feature Daniel González, a reporter for The Arizona Republic, who won a Pulitzer for his work on “The Wall: Unknown Stories, Unintended Consequences,” and Matthew Hall, a sociologist and demographer who is an expert on immigration. 

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