The new federal public charge rule took effect temporarily this week, significantly expanding the number of factors immigration authorities weigh when considering green card applications. While the new regulations will absolutely affect Dallas area green card applicants, immigration advocates caution that the rule applies to a very small number of people.
But confusion about this rule and the number of others proposed by the federal government in recent years has made immigrants and immigrant families afraid and led them to take unnecessarily drastic measures to be sure they’re safe from scrutiny, advocates say.
“There has been fear and confusion among mixed-status families in Texas really for the last three years,” said Melissa McChesney, a senior health and wellness policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonprofit policy institute based in Austin.
The United States will not grant permanent resident status to people deemed likely to become a public charge: someone who is completely dependent on the government. The revised public charge test rules add a number of new factors to the list the government considers when determining if a green card applicant will become a public charge.
The rules now require that immigration authorities negatively weight green card applications in which the person has used some public benefits, like Medicaid, cash assistance, SNAP or housing support, and makes less than 125% the public poverty level and will examine in detail the health history, age and education, and language skills of applicants. But negative strikes on the application can be canceled out by positive attributes like language and job training.
Although the rule change was initially blocked by several temporary injunctions granted by judges in response to a lawsuit challenging the proposed changes, the Supreme Court ruled last month that the revisions to public charge determination could go into effect temporarily while the lawsuit makes its way through court.
But although the new rules are much more stringent than in years past and concern Dallas area immigrant support agencies, the number of people to whom the rule applies is quite small. Most immigrants who qualify for public benefits are not subject to the public charge test, and the other requirements apply to relatively few applicants. Those who arrive on humanitarian visas — like refugees and asylum seekers — and many other special status immigrants are exempt from the public charge test, even if they apply for permanent residency. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) renewal applications are also exempt from the public charge test, McChesney said.
Additionally, the test applies only to green card applicants, does not account for Medicaid usage before age 21 or for pregnant women and does not apply to other immigrants or to those who already hold green cards, unless they leave the country for more than six months. Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition programs, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and free clinic usage are not part of the new rule change, so immigrants can continue using those without fear. Also, the new rules do not apply to family members, only to the individual green card applicant, McChesney said.
Because of the way the rule changes have been talked about, and because the regulations are convoluted and difficult to understand, there has been what McChesney calls a chilling effect on public benefits used by immigrants in Texas and elsewhere. In particular, she’s concerned about U.S. citizen children not using benefits they’re eligible for because their parents are afraid the use will affect their applications, although it will not.
“It’s just such a complex rule, there’s just a ton of misunderstanding among families,” she said.
Specifically, McChesney said, in December 2019, there were 240,000 fewer children in Texas enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP programs than there were two years earlier in December 2017. While it’s not possible to track the exact reasons people stop using public benefits, the decline is likely because of concerns surrounding immigrant usage of those services, McChesney said.
“There is no policy to point to other than these immigration issues that could drive the decline,” she said.
She, like every other immigrant advocate the Observer has talked to, suggests immigrants talk to immigrant organizations or their legal representation to find out if the rule applies to them.
At the North Texas Food Bank, clients seem to be dropping benefits out of fear, said Valerie Hawthorne, government relations director for the organization. Hawthorne worries that the way the rule change has been reported by major media outlets and that the use of sensationalized headlines has contributed to the fear that is leading people to drop public benefits.
“The unintended consequence is we do fear that there could be a fear factor,” Hawthorne said.
She wants clients to understand that they are most likely not affected by the new rule. She encourages them to reach out and ask for help if they’re worried. Most green card applicants have a lawyer to turn to for advice.
Clients are afraid to keep their appointments at nonprofits as well, said Nubia Torres, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities.
“People are afraid of coming to nonprofits because they think that’s a public benefit,” Torres said.
Catholic Charities helps process about 300 green card applications a year, according to Torres. Before the new rules took effect Monday, the organization worked hard to process as many applications as possible that would be affected by the new regulations. Now that they have, there’s going to be a period in which the organization adjusts how it counsels clients on the new rules.
But although public benefits usage is the most-often discussed part of the new rules, there are other requirements that Torres and other immigrant advocates find more concerning.
“Having clients who are not qualified based on education or language skills is going to be our biggest hurdle,” she said.
While the public benefits specifications are pretty clear, other parts of the updated public charge test are more nebulous and it’s harder to figure out exactly how health, age, language skills and education will be weighted, Torres said.
“It’s trying to figure out, A), how it’s going to be quantified, and B), how to get ahead of it,” she said.
In particular, McChesney said the updated income requirements for new green card applications are problematic, especially for families who are already stretched thin out of fear for using public benefits for non-green card applicant family members who qualify.
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“So you’re talking about families who are going to take on a considerable financial burden because they’re scared of using a public benefit,” she said.
The rule is the latest in a series of limitations placed on asylum seekers, visa applicants, refugees and other immigrants to the United States by the Trump administration. However, days before it went into effect, The Washington Post reported that Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, told a private gathering in the U.K. that the U.S. is in desperate need of immigrants in order to keep the economy growing.
But the new public charge rule will remain in effect now until a judge rules against it or until a new administration rescinds it, McChesney said. She anticipates that there will continue to be fewer immigrants taking advantage of public benefits and that their health will suffer as a result. Eventually, the toll on taxpayers is likely to rise as uninsured people get sick and go to emergency rooms for treatment.
“It’s making it harder for those who want to do this legally to do it,” Torres said.