Homeland Security Releases Draft “Public Charge” Rule that Would Affect Immigrants’ Access to Assisted Housing and Other Benefits

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a draft version of a forthcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing to change the criteria used by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to determine whether someone is a “public charge” – i.e., a recipient of public benefits. Under the proposed rule, public charge status would be more broadly defined – including housing assistance - and would weigh heavily in determining whether someone can be temporarily admitted to the U.S. or become a lawful permanent resident (a green card holder).

According to an analysis by Vox.com, previous guidance provided by the Clinton administration in 1999 defined the public charge status narrowly, applying to noncitizen recipients of certain cash-based income assistance programs – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – only when the public assistance accounted for more than 50% of that person’s income. A June 12, 2018 report, by the Migration Policy Institute estimated that only 3% of noncitizens fell into this category.

Currently, three programs are covered under the public charge policy, TANF, SSI, and emergency-Medicaid. A DHS press release indicates that the proposed rule would add to the definition of public charge: Non-emergency Medicaid, the Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), institutionalization for long-term care at government expense, and the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance, and Public Housing programs.

The DHS press release indicates that the “public charge inadmissibility determination is a prospective determination based on the totality of the circumstances, which includes statutorily required factors such as age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills.”

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), co-chairs of the Protecting Immigrant Families (PIF) “Advancing our Future Campaign,” have prepared a three-page summary that indicates DHS is also considering adding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to the list. PIF also states that the proposed rule would require an immigrant to earn at least 125% of the federal poverty level. The proposed rule would also negatively consider applicants with limited English proficiency (LEP) or with physical or mental health conditions that could affect their ability to work, attend school, or care for themselves.

“This [new rule] would force families — including citizen children — to choose between getting the help they need and remaining in their communities,” stated Diane Yentel, NLIHC president and CEO, in a Washington Post article about the rule. “The last thing the federal government should do is punish families that have fallen on hard times for feeding their children or keeping a roof over their heads and avoiding homelessness.”

While the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking is more moderate than an earlier version leaked to press in June, research shows the proposed changes would have a “chilling effect.” Charles Wheeler of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network stated in an article in The New York Times that “[t]he number of immigrants who withdraw from programs could exceed even the number who are subject to the rule.”

NLIHC and more than 1,100 other organizations signed a statement issued by PIF expressing opposition to the proposed rule. Additional materials from PIF are at: https://bit.ly/2OgCLTm