Homeland Security on Thursday announced it has adopted a new lenient policy on immigrants’ use of welfare, tossing a Trump-era policy that would have been far stricter.
Under the new system, known as the “public charge” rule, immigrants will only be penalized for potential welfare use if the government believes they will eventually become “primarily dependent” on government payments.
By contrast, living in government housing, using Medicaid for health coverage or accepting food stamps wouldn’t count against an immigrant.
Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the new rule will deliver “fair and humane treatment of legal immigrants.”
“Consistent with America’s bedrock values, we will not penalize individuals for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them,” he said.
But Emilio Gonzalez, who ran U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Bush administration, said the new rule stretched the intent of the law.
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“These people are doing through policy changes what they know Congress won’t allow,” he said.
The concept of the public charge rule is that immigrants should be able to pay their own way and not be a burden on Americans. A public charge policy has been in place dating back to the late 1800s.
Illegal immigrants are not supposed to be eligible for any public benefits, though they can accept some benefits on behalf of their U.S. citizen children.
The current public charge law was written by Congress in 1996. It allows the government to block entry — or to refuse to grant permanent legal status — to immigrants believed likely to depend on government assistance to support themselves here.
Congress left it to the administration to lay out exactly how that calculation would work. In 1999, the Clinton administration released “interim” guidance saying that only immigrants who directly took government cash payments, or became institutionalized, were in violation.
Few immigrants ran afoul of the rule.
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In 2019, the Trump administration adopted a new policy expanding the programs that would be judged to include non-cash assistance like food stamps or public housing. That policy was halted by federal courts, but while it was in place it proved ineffective, Homeland Security said.
Of 47,555 applicants whose cases were ruled on during that time, only three were denied on “public charge” grounds. Another two were given notices of intent to deny. In all five cases, the applicants were later approved.
But officials said the rule did have dangerous side effects — in particular, immigrants who feared accessing programs even though they were eligible for them.
Survey data suggested that some immigrants declined to seek health care, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr. Mayorkas’ new policy returns largely to the one from the Clinton era.
The administration had released the rule in draft form earlier, and Thursday’s adoption was expected.
Having the policy set in formal regulations makes it much more difficult for a future administration to overturn.
They would have to go through the same rulemaking process that the Biden administration did and come up with compelling reasons why the Biden plan isn’t working, or doesn’t match the intent of the law.
Immigrant-rights advocates cheered the new rules, calling them critical components of a nation ready to welcome less well-off newcomers.
“The United States does best when it takes advantage of the talents of immigrants from all walks of life, not just the privileged,” said Jorge Loweree at the American Immigration Council. “The data is clear that immigrants are a net benefit to this country, even if they start from the bottom and work their way up.”
Still, the Migration Policy Institute said Thursday that fears in the immigrant community about using welfare will linger. MPI said a major public education campaign could overcome those fears.