One in Seven Adults in Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefit Programs in 2018

Publication date: 
May 2019
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In October 2018, after months of anticipation, the administration published a proposed rule altering “public charge” determinations that would make it harder for immigrants to get a green card (i.e., lawful permanent residence). After a public comment period that closed in December, the rule is being finalized. If implemented, the rule would make it more difficult for immigrants to get green cards if they have received certain noncash public benefits or have low incomes or other characteristics considered to increase their likelihood of using benefits in the future.

Beyond reducing future immigration numbers, there is widespread concern this revised public charge rule would have “chilling effects” on low-income immigrant families by discouraging them from applying for and receiving public benefits for which they are eligible, for fear of risking future green card status.

In this brief, Urban Institute uses data from the December 2018 Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey to provide the first systematic evidence on the extent of chilling effects among immigrant families before release of a final public charge rule. They find that:

  • About one in seven adults in immigrant families (13.7 percent) reported “chilling effects,” in which the respondent or a family member did not participate in a noncash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card status. This figure was even higher, 20.7 percent, among adults in low-income immigrant families.
  • Though the proposed rule would only directly affect adults who do not yet have a green card, we observed chilling effects in families with various mixes of immigration and citizenship statuses, including 14.7 percent of adults in families where all noncitizen members had green cards and 9.3 percent of those in families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens.
  • Hispanic adults in immigrant families were more than twice as likely (20.6 percent) as non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic nonwhite adults in immigrant families (8.5 percent and 6.0 percent, respectively) to report chilling effects in their families.
  • Though the proposed rule would only directly apply to adults, many households with children had chilling effects. Adults in immigrant families living with children under age 19 were more likely to report chilling effects (17.4 percent) than adults without children in the household (8.9 percent).
  • Most adults in immigrant families reported awareness of the public charge rule (62.9 percent). Adults who had heard “a lot” about the proposed rule were the most likely to report chilling effects in their families (31.1 percent).

Even though the rule has not yet taken effect, it is notable that even these early results show strong evidence of chilling effects. It is reasonable to expect that chilling effects will likely expand if the rule is implemented. Potential consequences for health and well-being will be important to monitor. Educating service providers and immigrant families is one key strategy to combat misinformation and mitigate harm.

Full brief available for download in English and Spanish.