Trump’s Public Charge Rule Created Harm Even Before It Was Implemented (The Torch)

Trump’s Public Charge Rule Created Harm Even Before It Was Implemented

THE TORCH: CONTENTSBy Holly Straut-Eppsteiner
MARCH 2, 2020

In September 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed a new set of regulations that would make drastic changes to determinations regarding which immigrants are eligible to be admitted as lawful permanent residents in the United States. The final rule, which has taken effect for applications submitted within the U.S. on or after February 24, 2020, substantially changes the criteria by which “public charge” determinations are made and, as a result, who has access to permanent lawful status in the country.

Previously, an individual’s likelihood of being designated a public charge — that is, deemed likely to become primarily dependent on government support in the future — was based on reliance on public cash assistance for monthly income or long-term institutionalization at government expense. Widely regarded as a wealth test, the new rule expands public charge determinations to include several new criteria, including new income thresholds, age, health, education, and use of noncash benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamp” benefits), nonemergency Medicaid (with some exceptions), and housing assistance. Litigation challenging the rule is ongoing.

An estimated 26 million people could be chilled from accessing nutrition, health care, or housing programs because of fear and misinformation related to this rule. In fact, there is evidence that the DHS rule has already chilled immigrant families’ participation in benefits programs for which they are eligible. Shortly after the rule was proposed — more than a year before it was implemented — a survey found that more than 20 percent of adults in low-income immigrant families had avoided participating in benefit programs.


In a new report, the National Immigration Law Center draws on accounts from service providers across the country to document how immigrant communities reacted to media reports, rumors, and other information circulating about “public charge” even before the Trump administration began implementing its new rule. The report describes how individuals who are not subject to a public charge test — including people who are already lawful permanent residents, members of exempted humanitarian groups, and even U.S. citizens — have already been impacted by the rule.

Providers interviewed for this study shared examples such as a working mother in Wisconsin who canceled food stamp benefits for her U.S. citizen children and planned to take on a third job, lawful permanent residents choosing not to enroll in health coverage programs in North Carolina, and a cancer patient in California who considered stopping treatment because she believed getting treatment could jeopardize her immigration status. Service providers reported that their clients were concerned not only about accessing programs that the new rule lists as being considered in public charge determinations — such as SNAP and Medicaid — but also programs that are not listed — such as Affordable Care Act Marketplace health coverage, county health programs, school lunches, and WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. These accounts demonstrate how fear and misinformation about public charge harm the health and well-being of immigrant communities.

The DHS rule is also making it harder for service providers such as benefits enrollers, health care providers, and outreach workers to do their jobs. For example, providers have taken on extra responsibility to research the rule, understand its implications, and explain it to their clients — even when they have no formal training in immigration law and policy. Providers must also overcome misinformation from media, social networks, and immigration attorneys. In some cases, they are doing so successfully, going above and beyond to make sure that their clients receive the programs and care they need.

But in other cases, even when service providers shared accurate information with their clients about whether they would be impacted, fear still made people decide to avoid programs and services that could significantly improve their lives. As an advocate for human trafficking survivors in Kentucky noted, “People feel like we can’t be confident that it won’t change again or become more restrictive, or that we still won’t get in trouble … [T]here’s just a realistic fear that there’s this constant changing, so how can I be sure?”

These findings identify a disconnect between the DHS public charge rule as written and the way it is being interpreted in immigrant communities. They illustrate that the rule negatively impacts not only people who are actually subject to its public charge test but also others, including people with lawful permanent residence, U.S. citizen children, and survivors of crime and human trafficking. As the rule has moved into the final stage of its implementation, it’s clear that the health and well-being of immigrants and their families are at stake.

The report is titled “Documenting through Service Provider Accounts Harm Caused by the Department of Homeland Security’s Public Charge Rule.” For more information and resources related to public charge, visit

Holly Straut-Eppsteiner is NILC’s Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and research program manager.