Will Trump’s ‘public charge’ rule keep poor migrants out of US?

The expanded rule makes immigrants ineligible for US entry or legal status if they receive public benefits.

A United States citizenship applicant participates in a naturalisation ceremony in the US, where President Trump has introduced an expansion of criteria used to deny immigrants entry or a green card [File: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg]

United States President Donald Trump‘s expansion of the “public charge” rule broadens the criteria the government can use to deny an immigrant US entry or legal status. After Trump’s proposal was blocked by several federal courts, a narrowly divided Supreme Court sided with him in late January. The so-called “final rule” takes effect on February 24. Some say it makes it easier for government officials to deny legal status to low-income immigrants who use or are deemed likely “at any time” to use certain public benefits.  

Here’s what’s new, what benefits are included and what the experts say about Trump’s “final rule”. 

What is the ‘public charge’ rule?

A version of the “public charge” rule has been on the books in the US since 1882. It was used to deny US entry to “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge”. While that federal law did not provide any definition of a “public charge”, officials took several factors into account, including an immigrant’s willingness to work.

What’s new about Trump’s ‘final rule’ change?

Trump’s “final rule” replaces guidelines in place since 1999. It recategorises several non-cash health-related programmes as “heavily weighted” negative factors that deem an individual a “public charge”, or cost to the US government. The “final rule” gives US immigration officials a broad range of factors to determine whether an individual applying for entry or a green card, now or “at any time”, will require public assistance. These include age, health, family status, assets, resources, finances, education and skills. 

What non-cash benefits are included?

For the first time, non-cash benefits will be used to determine whether someone is or may become a “public charge”. Immigration officials can now deny a green card to an individual receiving non-cash benefits like US government subsidies that assist with healthcare, food and housing. These benefits include non-cash health programmes such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, subsidised health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. A legal immigrant in the US receiving these benefits for more than 12 months out of the last three years may be deemed a “public charge” and denied permanent status such as a green card. 

Is anyone exempt from the ‘final rule’?

Yes, children, those receiving disability benefits, and pregnant women are among those excluded from the “final rule”. Also exempt are refugees, asylum seekers, and Afghans and Iraqis with special immigrant visas.

Why should non-immigrants care?

The final rule can potentially cause 10 million noncitizens to disenroll from public benefit programmes, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). These noncitizen immigrants live with millions of US citizens, among them children. 

“Everyone benefits when all people have their basic needs met and can access public services, from going to the doctor when sick to reporting crime,” Hamutal Bernstein, Senior Research Associate at the Urban Institute, told Al Jazeera.

Has the ‘final rule’ affected communities yet?

Experts warn that expansion to the preceding “public charge” rule has already had “chilling effects“. The Urban Institute found that one in seven adults in immigrant families did not participate in a non-cash benefit programme in 2018 when the “final rule” was first unveiled. Moreover, one in five adults in low-income immigrant families did not seek a non-cash benefit programme also “for fear of risking future visa status”.

Will some ethnic groups be more impacted?

Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders will be disproportionately affected by the final rule, according to MPI. More than 16 million people live in benefit-receiving families with at least one Latino noncitizen. And three million live in families with at least one Asian American and Pacific Islander noncitizen. 

Does the rule accurately predict migrant productivity?

Most immigrants receiving public assistance use it to supplement their salaries, MPI found. Its research notes that 63 percent of noncitizens between 16 to 64 years of age receiving at least one public benefit are employed, compared with 51 percent of the US-born population.

“The fact that someone works one, two or three jobs and still needs benefits to survive doesn’t make them lazy, it makes them the working poor,” Reaz H Jafri, immigration lawyer at Withersworldwide, told Al Jazeera.

Investing in immigrants pays off, according to the New American Economy [File: Bloomberg] 

While on average, first-generation immigrants receive more benefits than the native-born generation, investing in them pays dividends. According to the New American Economy (NAE), a research and advocacy organisation, 43.8 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by an immigrant or the child of immigrants. 

Is the ‘final rule’ unfair to low-income people?

Yes, Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at NAE, told Al Jazeera. People who are worse off in their home countries immigrate to the US for the American Dream. “Essentially, what the Trump administration is saying is ‘here’s a bar and you have to jump over it,'” Lim said. “But immigrants come here for a better life, and being on food stamps forever is just not a part of that plan.”     

Is the ‘final rule’ part of a global trend?

Some Western governments, including top destinations for immigrants, are tightening their immigration policies. A post-Brexit United Kingdom recently announced plans to adopt a points-based system to end “low-skilled” migration. One way to rack up points in the UK is to have a job that pays at least 25,600 pounds ($33,171) a year. Germany is also looking to introduce a points-based system to attract only high-skilled workers.

“We are sending a message that we don’t want poor people and that they are less worthy of us, which sadly appeals to the lowest common denominator among us,” Jafri, the immigration lawyer, said.

“Don’t we want to attract hardworking people?”

Source: Al Jazeera