Acting Director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks during a briefing at the White House in August 2019. Credit: Screen grab from White House YouTube

ST. PAUL — Starting this week, the federal government is expanding the scope of its “public charge” rule — a move that will make it tougher for some immigrants to access public aid.

The rule, which went into effect today, lets authorities deny entry to immigrants seeking green cards and certain visas if they’re deemed overly reliant on government benefits. It dates back to the 1880s, but was used sparingly the past few decades. 

In fall 2018, however, the Trump administration said it would significantly expand the definition of who is a public charge. The news triggered widespread panic and confusion among immigrant communities — and lawsuits all the way to the United States Supreme Court. 

In January, the administration got the Supreme Court’s OK to move forward. Now, observers worry it will keep immigrants and refugees from seeking federal health benefits, food aid and housing subsidies, even if they still qualify.

It’s a “major, major rule change with really huge ramifications, much of which are chilling people from applying [for benefits], even if it doesn’t apply to them,” said Liz Schott, a senior fellow with the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Here are the key questions — and answers — to what’s changing and who’s affected.

1) Who does the public charge rule cover? 

People currently not living in the U.S. who plan to move here, as well people who already live here and are actively applying for a green card, or permanent residency, for the first time. 

Most immigrants will not be affected, but the new rule seems to be written to intentionally cause confusion, said Anne Quincy, a supervising attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid who helps clients access public benefits.

ICE officials “are happy to let the (new) rule give the impression that all immigrants are eligible for all benefits as soon as they arrive,” she said, but that’s not the case. 

2) Are unauthorized immigrants subject to public charge? 

Yes, but it’s long been very hard, if not impossible, anyway for such a person to access most aid programs subject to the new rule. 

One exception is federal public housing, which is subject to the new public charge rule. Unauthorized immigrants can access public housing, but only if they are living with at least one person who has legal status. A common example would be if their children were born in the U.S. 

They can also access emergency Medicaid health benefits. 

3) Are refugees subject to public charge?

No. People here under refugee status and humanitarian visas are exempt from the rule.

4) What federal programs must an immigrant be enrolled in to be considered a public charge under the new rule? 

  • Medical Assistance, which is what Minnesota calls Medicaid
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps
  • Section 8 housing assistance, Section 8 project-based rental assistance and public housing under Section 9

Pregnant women receiving Medical Assistance and people receiving emergency Medical Assistance are exempt from being considered a public charge. Anyone under 21 receiving Medical Assistance is also exempt. 

Previously, public charge applied only to people receiving three types of cash assistance through federal benefit programs including the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, known here as the Minnesota Family Investment Program and commonly called welfare. 

5) What are some popular programs not subject to public charge? 

No benefits program funded solely by state money is subject to public charge. This includes MinnesotaCare, the state’s subsidized program for low-income households.

Popular federal benefits programs not subject to public charge include:

  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
  • The National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Head Start
  • Enrollment in private health insurance programs under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare

6) Can immigrants be deported for being considered a public charge? 

Yes. Public charge is and has long been considered grounds to deport immigrants, although it’s rare. Immigrants, though, cannot be deported simply for receiving federal benefits. 

According to Quincy, the Minnesota legal aid attorney, a likely case for deportation would involve the applicant lying about their immigration status on an application for aid, then the government finding out and telling the applicant to pay the benefit back, the applicant refusing, and then the government suing the applicant and winning. 

7) Didn’t the Supreme Court’s decision in January settle all the legal issues?

No. No court has made decisions on the merits of the new public charge rule. The Supreme Court ruled only that a New York district judge’s preliminary injunction was too sweeping in scope. 

While that opened the door for the Trump administration to start expanding public charge, expect the legal battle to continue. Minnesota is one of 14 states challenging the new rules in a district court in Washington state.

8) Why did the Trump administration expand public charge? 

When he announced the final version of the rule change last August, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli told reporters that the new rule “better ensures that immigrants are able to successfully support themselves as they seek opportunity here in America.”

In an interview with NPR that same month, Cuccinelli cited the famous phrase “give me your tired, your poor” inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty and added, “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” 

Correction (Feb. 25): An earlier version of this story suggested the rule changes could hurt efforts by immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship. The changes affect applications for residency.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...