Through the Back Door: Remaking the Immigration System via the Expected “Public-Charge” Rule

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

From its earliest days, the Trump administration has been working to reduce family-based immigration to the United States and limit legal immigrants’ use of public benefits. The administration may be on the cusp of issuing a proposed rule that could do both at once, by dramatically expanding the list of public benefits that could lead to an immigrant being considered a “public charge.” The proposed policy could disqualify immigrants from obtaining legal permanent residence (aka getting a green card) or seeking or renewing a temporary visa if they or their legal dependents, including U.S. citizens, received one or more of a broad range of public benefits.

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) analyzed a March leaked draft of the proposed rule, finding that nearly half of the U.S. noncitizen population could be at risk of a public-charge determination—up from the current 3 percent. Under current policy, only immigrants who are primarily dependent on cash benefits or in government-funded, long-term institutional care would be considered public charges.

The experience of welfare reform in the mid-1990s strongly suggests that the new policy would likely lead to a sharp decline in use of public benefits for which many legally present immigrants and their dependents are eligible.

At the same time, powerful, less-noticed provisions of the potential rule would effectively create the potential for a major back-door overhaul of the legal immigration system by imposing new standards that would fall most heavily on would-be immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Family-based immigration, which has been in the administration’s crosshairs, would be most affected, with significant regional, national, and racial effects on future flows. 


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