public charge
public charge

By Matthew Vadum

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration will soon enforce a long-awaited “public charge” rule aimed at making sure future immigrants to the United States can support themselves without becoming a burden on taxpayers.

The move, which is part of President Donald Trump’s promised overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies, will give the government some leeway to deny green cards, which bestow permanent residents status on individuals, if, according to government methodology the individuals are thought likely to become reliant on welfare programs.

The rule will have prospective effect, meaning it will not affect those who already have green cards or have become U.S. citizens. Asylees, as well, will be exempt from the rule.

America’s immigration policies must promote “the well-being of the American people,” Trump said while campaigning in August 2016.

“Our enforcement priorities will include removing criminals, gang members, security threats, visa overstays, public charges,” Trump said. He defined public charges as “those relying on public welfare or straining the safety net along with millions of recent illegal arrivals and overstays who’ve come here under this current corrupt administration.”

America needs people who are “able to stand on their own two feet,” Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), an agency under the Department of Homeland Security, said at a White House press briefing Aug. 12.

Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks to media at the White House in Washington on Aug. 12, 2019. (Charlotte Cuthbertson/The Epoch Times)

“Through the public charge rule, President Trump’s administration is re-enforcing the ideal of self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, ensuring that immigrants are able to support themselves and become successful in America,” he said.

This does not mean that someone deemed likely to become dependent on government relief will automatically be barred, Cuccinelli added. A “totality of circumstances test” will be used to assess applications and if someone is deemed inadmissible on public charge grounds, they will be allowed to post a public charge bond, he said.


The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) applauded the new policy.

“With crumbling infrastructure, highly unaffordable healthcare, and rising college tuition costs, the money spent on noncitizen welfare could certainly be allocated elsewhere,” FAIR government relations director R.J. Hauman told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“Carelessly providing billions of dollars in benefits to people who never paid into our system is not only unfair to American citizens, but a recipe for financial disaster.”

Critics characterized the incoming rule as mean-spirited and promised to fight it in the courts.

Marielena Hincapieé, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, told reporters her group would file a legal challenge against the rule.

“It will have a dire humanitarian impact, forcing some families to forego critical life-saving health care and nutrition,” she said. “The damage will be felt for decades to come.”

Some critics say the rule will make some fearful of applying for government benefits.

The Migration Policy Institute said last year the rule “would result in disenrollment from public benefits programs by many immigrants, including those not directly affected by the rule, as well as U.S.-born dependents.”

Long History

The proposed regulation, consisting of an 837-page rule that is expected to take effect Oct. 15 defines the phrase “public charge” under Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Hundreds of thousands of comments from the public were received.

The public-charge principle, that is, the idea that immigrants should have to demonstrate they can get by without becoming wards of the government, has been part of the American experience for centuries.

Public charge provisions have been part of U.S. immigration law since at least 1882. One of the earliest known public charge laws in colonial Massachusetts was enacted in 1645. By the end of the 1600s, many American colonies screened would-be immigrants and required bonds for those believed likely to become public charges.

The now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service issued a field guidance in 1999 defining a public charge as someone who is “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either (i) the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or (ii) institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.” This includes Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), state and local cash assistance, and Medicaid in certain circumstances.

But the legal provision has been largely ignored in recent years.

“The difficulty we have had for the last 20 years under the 1999 guidance is that it was in anticipation of a rule that was never entered and it was fairly minimalist guidance and it has not been particularly useful in the work we do at USCIS,” Cuccinelli said, describing the new rule as a “better and more thorough attempt.”

The new rule defines “public charge” as an immigrant who takes in one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months within a 36-month period. The rule also provides a long list of categories of individuals who will be exempt from the regulation, largely on humanitarian grounds.

“Selecting immigrants who are likely to be self-sufficient and financially responsible is a win-win,” said FAIR’s Hauman.

“Not only will it save taxpayers billions of dollars annually – it also gives an immigrant a true opportunity to prosper and succeed in a new country.”

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