The New Public Charge Rule and the Threat to Our Democracy

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

By Daranee Petsod, GCIR President

The Trump administration has launched its most far-reaching attack on immigrants to date in the guise of a seemingly innocuous regulatory change: the revised “public charge” rule. When the new rule goes into effect on October 15, barring delays due to litigation, immigrants accessing programs that help them meet basic needs, such as food, housing, and health care, can be denied a green card, and individuals deemed likely to use these programs can be denied admission to the United States.

At its core, public charge is a pretext for targeting people the administration deems undesirable, a key component of its white nationalist agenda to halt and reverse demographic change in the United States. Rooted in a long history of discrimination and exclusion, the newly expanded public charge rule seeks to—and almost certainly will—disadvantage poor people of color, while favoring middle-class white immigrants from Europe and Canada. In fact, as much as one-third of U.S.-born citizens would fail to meet the harsh new public charge standards. For many people—my family included—had our forebears been subjected to this test, they would have been deemed undeserving of a chance at the American Dream.

The estimated impact of the new public charge rule dwarfs that of any other immigration policy under this administration thus far. The rule’s “chilling effect” could deter as many as 26 million people—including both lawful noncitizens and their U.S.-citizen family members—from accessing vital services for which they are eligible. Fearing the potential immigration consequences, many have preemptively disenrolled from public assistance programs, and others have refrained from applying. The rule will also keep immigrants separated from family members who cannot meet the new financial requirements and overcome new regulatory barriers to immigrate to the United States.

And that’s not all. In the coming months, the administration also plans to make the use of public benefits a deportable offense. The public charge rule forces families into the impossible position of foregoing basic needs if they wish to continue their lives in this country.

With the radical new public charge rule, the Trump administration not only jeopardizes community health, well-being, and stability—it also undermines hard-won progress toward equity, justice, and inclusion. Moreover, as it has done time and again, from the Muslim ban to family separation and from the census citizenship question to public charge, the administration is advancing its agenda by circumventing the legislative process and Congressional scrutiny. In the case of public charge, it has also disregarded the more than 266,000 public comments filed, almost all of which opposed the rule change, including those from foundations and their grantee organizations. More than harming immigrant communities, these acts bear the hallmarks of rising authoritarianism and threaten our very democracy.

Philanthropy has pushed back since the very first executive actions, recognizing that immigration issues are integral to all funding priorities. Now, with the stakes higher than ever before, I urge you to redouble your efforts on behalf of immigrant children and families, reaffirm your commitment to the inherent value of every human being, and advance an affirmative vision of America that offers hope and opportunity for all.

Did You Know?
  • Public charge has its roots in British colonial “poor laws” of the 1600s.
  • In antebellum America, public charge was a factor that state and local governments used in determining whether to emancipate enslaved individuals in specific cases.
  • The Immigration Act of 1882 denied entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” This 1882 law passed soon after the Chinese Exclusion Act.
  • The Immigration Act of 1882 was later used to deny entry to LGBTQ immigrants in the early 1950s.


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