Brief / Policy & Reports / Immigration / Legal Avenues

Trump Administration’s “Public Charge” rule is a backdoor attempt to cut legal immigration

UPDATE: On April 12, 2021 USCIS announced that the August 2019 Public Charge Final Rule is no longer in effect and will no longer be applied, that the rule had been removed from the Code of Federal Regulations, and that the agency had reverted to the 1999 interim field guidance for applying the public charge test. For more, see USCIS’ page on Public Charge.
This post has been archived as it appeared on the date of its last update, 9/24/2018. Please be aware that the information below, including policies and practices described, may now be outdated. We have preserved this content in its original form for posterity, to reflect the policies and our perspective at that time.


The Trump Administration has finalized a federal rule to deter new immigrants by rewriting the definition of “public charge,” a fundamental concept in immigration law. These changes will chip away at the American Dream, determining who can immigrate to America based overwhelmingly on an individual’s wealth rather than his or her overall contributions and prospective potential. These changes have already instilled unnecessary fear in our communities, and when implemented will punish immigrants for using benefits which they are legally entitled to receive, with no clear benefit to other Americans. This proposal is another unilateral move by the Administration to limit legal immigration, bypassing the will of Congress and the American people.

Access to public benefits and the “public charge” test

Under current law, non-citizens can be denied entry or green cards they are likely to become a public charge, someone “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” To determine if someone is a public charge, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials may review if the person is dependent on means-tested cash-benefits or receiving long-term care at a government-funded institution. There are a host of other benefits – including certain health benefits, nutrition programs, and child support programs – that are explicitly excluded from consideration.

While the public charge test reviews usage of some benefits, it’s important to note that immigrants are barred from accessing the majority of federal public benefits1. Congress spent a great deal of time in the 1990’s narrowly defining what benefits would be accessible by immigrants,2 recognizing their importance for citizen and non-citizen welfare alike; meanwhile, government agencies worked to narrowly and fairly define which benefits would be considered under the public charge test.3

A backdoor attempt to cut legal immigration

Now the Trump Administration is expanding the public charge test beyond decades of law and agency interpretation to potentially punish millions of legal immigrants. The new policy would expand the “primarily dependent” requirement to apply to anyone who has ever accepted public benefits, including benefits provided by law and deliberately excluded from consideration before; it would also penalize individuals who do not meet strict income requirements above the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

And while this would not expressly prohibit qualified individuals from accepting public benefits, such acceptance could jeopardize their attempts to adjust status, creating massive barriers and penalties for millions of new immigrants. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that the share of non-citizens impacted by the policy could increase as much as 15 times over. The effect would be to block large numbers of qualified immigrants from earning green cards and eventually citizenship, reducing legal immigration. In fact, this has already started: ineligibility findings on public charge grounds surged by over 300% from FY17 to FY18, in large part because the Trump Administration pushed through changes to the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual.

The announcement and news coverage have already begun to have a chilling effect for individuals who would otherwise seek to supplement their household income with critical benefits to which they are legally entitled with experts predicting the effect will only get worse. This is by design – the government’s proposal states explicitly that one purpose of the rule is to ensuring immigrants “would not use or receive one or more public benefits.” Frightening people away from these crucial resources will hurt all of us, compromising the health, education, and economic well-being of families and communities across our country, regardless of immigration status.

The proposal is a solution in search of a problem with far-reaching, harmful consequences. There exists no reliable evidence that immigrants are accessing public benefits at inordinate rates or at great cost to American citizens; rather, research shows that immigrants provide a positive fiscal impact by contributing more than they utilize and growing the economy. Voters have soundly rejected the Administration’s crusade to cut legal immigration and its underlying assumptions – 75% of Americans say that immigration is good for America, and two-thirds say that immigration levels should stay the same or increase. This Congress has also rejected similarly restrictive policies multiple times, with overwhelming majorities in both chambers voting down bills4 to restrict legal entry.

Immigrants contribute much more than they use

Immigrants are major economic contributors and economic multipliers who contribute more resources than they draw upon. Immigrants come to America to work, participating in the workforce at higher rates than native-born Americans. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate for immigrants (including undocumented workers) in 2017 was 66%, compared to a rate of 62% for the native-born population, with participation for immigrant men estimated at 84%, compared to 79% for native-born men.

Because immigrants participate in the workforce at such high rates, they also pay an extraordinary amount in state, local, and federal taxes (the same taxes funding public benefit programs). In 2014, immigrants contributed $328.2 billion in taxes, with more than $100 billion going to state and local taxes. Payroll taxes also fund federal programs like Medicare, which immigrants subsidize at an annual rate of $11.4 billion. Many immigrants, like Tony of DoorDash, will go on to start their own companies, with immigrants founding a quarter of new American businesses and employing one in ten Americans who work for private companies.

And while a limited number of immigrants may temporarily accept public benefits to make ends meet, the cost does not outweigh the benefits of their contributions, as noted above. Again, most immigrants, by virtue of their immigration status, do not even qualify for most federal public benefits, and those eligible immigrants who do qualify use public benefits at generally similar or lower rates as native-born Americans. Additionally, immigrant workers have recently been gravitating toward living in states with relatively low spending for public assistance, clearly looking for opportunities to work in locations where their labor is needed.

All of this means that each working immigrant represents a net fiscal gain for Americans, amounting to approximately $1,800 for each first-generation arrival and up to $7,350 for second-generation immigrants over the age of 20. This “immigration surplus” grows the economy for everyone and leaves native-born Americans better off. Changes like those proposed in the leaked drafts would reverse those benefits, dealing damaging consequences to the U.S. economy and American workers. Immigration policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh estimated the proposed rule would “cost $1.46 for every dollar it saves” – a wasteful expenditure that hurts taxpayers.

Stories like Tony’s might become impossible for millions of future immigrants. It is long past time for elected officials, particularly those in the President’s own party, to speak out in support of immigrants and the contributions they bring to the U.S. and to encourage future immigration into the country.”

Supporting immigrants is smart for America

Immigration powers the American economy, and ensuring that immigrant families living here today can thrive means greater benefits for all U.S. residents and our children in the future. The earning potential of immigrants and their contributions to the labor-force and economy grows over time and over generations. As a group, immigrants are upwardly mobile, and the children of immigrants economically outperform their parents, who are already making countless economic and social contributions. Simply put, immigrants in America tend to use the resources available to make great strides from humble beginnings – but the Trump Administration’s proposed rule threatens their ability to do so.

Tony Xu, the founder of DoorDash, embodies this story. At the age of five, Tony came to the United States with his parents, leaving behind their home in China to pursue a better life here. Despite his dad working as a researcher at the University of Illinois and his mom holding three jobs of her own, Tony’s family still had to utilize some public benefits, like food assistance, to make ends meet. Over time their sacrifices paid off, and in 2013 Tony founded DoorDash, an incredibly successful meal delivery service. Today, DoorDash is valued at $4 billion, using recent investment to expand into 1,200 new cities and to hire 250 new employees, in addition to over 100,000 part-time gigs already created for delivery drivers across the country.

Like other backdoor attempts to slash legal immigration and instill fear in immigrant communities, the new “public charge” definition is a solution in search of a problem. If finalized, this rule holds significant ramifications for U.S. citizens and immigrants alike, and is an affront to our fundamental American ideals. Policies that prematurely close off opportunity and discriminatorily cast judgment primarily because of an individual’s financial status don’t benefit our country in the long-term. Stories like Tony’s might become impossible for millions of future immigrants. It is long past time for elected officials, particularly those in the President’s own party, in support of immigrants and the contributions they bring to the U.S. and to encourage future immigration into the country.

If some individuals are concerned with the contribution rates of new immigrants, they should support legislation that invests in their success and opens the door to opportunities, such as increasing funding for English-language education, higher education, and job skills training; making it easier for highly-skilled and STEM-educated individuals to obtain green cards; and finally passing legislation to legalize Dreamers. Unlike the punitive public charge rule, these common-sense reforms include the significant benefit of not only supporting immigrants, but also growing the economy and creating jobs for all Americans.

Get in touch with us:

Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy

  1. Immigrant eligibility for public benefits is generally restricted to four means-tested federal programs: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, and Medicaid. Refugees, asylees, and other humanitarian immigrants can access the full range of benefits for five to seven years after arriving. Green card holders can also access these programs, but are barred for their first five years in the country. States make up gaps in coverage by providing access to some programs, including health assistance. Undocumented and temporary immigrants (like visitors and workers) are ineligible for most federal benefits, except for some emergency services.
  2. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, immigrants with legal status were initially eligible for broadly the same public benefits as U.S. citizens. In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), greatly limiting access. Within a few years of its passage, however, Congress returned to generally restore certain benefits it had stripped in PRWORA, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for those in the U.S. prior to its enactment and food stamp eligibility for certain immigrant children, elderly, and disabled individuals. And in each session of Congress since, leaders in both parties have made efforts to reinstate or expand the benefits accessible to newly arrived immigrants.
  3. In 1999, in response to “considerable public confusion” caused by PRWORA, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) drafted a proposed rule to clarify the scope and definition of “public charge.” INS limited the scope of programs considered under public charge considerations because it reasoned that non-cash benefits are usually supplemental only; thus, with Congress’ acquiescence, the immigration agency explicitly exempted Medicaid, Food Stamps, certain health insurance, housing assistance, and other programs. INS reiterated, “[I]t has never been Service policy that the receipt of any public service or benefit must be considered for public charge purposes. The nature of the program is important.” While the INS rule was never formally implemented, it served as foundation for interim guidance, which remains unchanged by Congress and in effect today.
  4. In 2017 President Trump endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE Act), a bill from Sens. Cotton and Perdue that would cut legal immigration levels by 50% with devastating economic consequences, but that bill has languished with no additional co-sponsors or action in the Senate. Earlier this year, 60 bipartisan Senators rejected a White House-backed proposal to radically slash legal immigration in exchange for limited protections for Dreamers, with the House rejecting a similar proposal in June by a vote of 193-231.
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