One in Six Adults in California Immigrant Families Reported Avoiding Public Benefits in 2019

Publication date: 
May 2020


California has moved proactively to support immigrant families in response to restrictive federal immigration and safety net policies, but policies like the new “public charge” rule still pose risks, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rule significantly expands the criteria for determining whether applicants for permanent residency, or green cards, may be denied based on past or potential use of government benefit programs.

This brief draws on unique data from California participants in the Well-Being and Basic Needs Survey (WBNS), a nationally representative, internet-based survey conducted in December 2019. We complemented survey findings with follow-up interviews with 17 adults in California immigrant families who reported experiencing chilling effects in the WBNS. We find the following:

  • Chilling effects for adults in California immigrant families increased between 2018 and 2019.
    • Of all adults in California immigrant families, 17.7 percent reported that they or a family member did not participate in a noncash government benefit program, such as Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program), CalFresh (California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or a housing program, in 2019 for fear of risking future green card status, up from 12.2 percent in 2018.
    • Follow-up interviews described how these decisions to stop or avoid program participation were based on limited information and abundant caution.
  • Awareness of and confidence in understanding of the public charge rule were widespread, but many adults in California immigrant families did not understand key aspects of the rule.
    • Two-thirds of adults in California immigrant families (65.3 percent) were aware of the public charge rule and 69.9 percent were confident in their understanding of the rule. Yet, only 22.5 percent knew it does not apply to citizenship applications, and only 18.2 percent knew children’s enrollment in Medi-Cal will not be considered in their parents’ public charge determinations.
    • Follow-up interviews also illustrated confusion and misunderstanding about the rule, including about who it applies to and when it takes effect.
  • Adults in California immigrant families were most likely to trust government agencies and legal professionals for information about how using public benefits would affect their or their family member’s immigration status, but very small shares reported getting information on the public charge rule from these sources.
    • Legal professionals were the most trusted source (67.9 percent), followed by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (63.3 percent), state government agencies (55.4 percent), and local government agencies (50.4 percent), but most adults in California immigrant families reported getting information on the rule from the media or personal networks, which they trust less.
    • Follow-up interviews confirmed a desire for official information from government sources, highlighted barriers to accessing legal assistance, and confirmed a reliance on personal networks and media for information on the rule, as well as mistrust of the media.
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