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The Trump Administration’s New “Public Charge” Rule

boydadimmigrationrallyThere’s been no shortage of things to write about over the past two-and-a-half years, either substantively or otherwise.  The Trump Administration’s (or Stephen Miller’s) decision to change the “public charge” rule ranks up there as one of the most important things that I’ve had an opportunity to address.  Assuming no litigation to stop the change, the proposed change to the “public charge” rule will dramatically expand the number of immigrants that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could deem ineligible for lawful permanent residence (i.e., for Green Cards) or admission to the United States on account of income level and prior use of certain public benefits.

As often is the case in these articles, a little context is in order.

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an individual may be denied admission into the United States or denied the ability to become a Green Card holder if he or she is “likely at any time to become a public charge.”[1]  An individual who has previously been admitted to the United States may also be subject to removal / deportation from the United States based on a separate public charge ground of deportability.  There are certain exemptions to these provisions (e.g., for refugees and asylees).

DHS and the Department of State (DOS) are the agencies that implement the INA’s public charge provisions. DHS addresses whether to make a public charge determination when an individual applies to become a Green Card holder in the United States.  DOS, on the other hand, makes its own public charge determination when its consular officers review applications for immigrant visas (the document that allows an individual to enter the United States as an LPR).

Although the INA does not itself define what the term “public charge” means, DHS guidance has defined it to mean a person who is or is likely to become “primarily dependent” on “public cash assistance for income maintenance” or “institutionaliz[ed] for long-term care at government expense.”[2]  Historically, in determining whether an individual meets the definition for public charge inadmissibility, a number of factors must have been considered, including age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills. No single factor will determine whether an individual is a public charge.[3]  Also important in the consideration is whether the petitioner who, e.g., sponsored his or her qualifying family member, submitted a sufficient “affidavit of support”.[4]

On August 14, 2019, DHS published a final rule governing the INA’s public charge grounds of inadmissibility. It goes effect on October 15, 2019.  If not prevented from going into effect, the rule will have a chilling effect on families throughout the country who choose to forgo essential services to avoid imperiling their immigration status. (Candidly, the very announcement of the new rule has already had this chilling effect.)

The new rule dramatically changes the standard by which DHS determines whether an applicant for a Green Card or admission to the United States is “likely at any time to become a public charge.”  Under the new rule,[5]DHS removes the consideration of whether an individual is primarily dependent on public benefits, and now redefines public charge as a noncitizen who receives a specified public benefit for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period.[6]  This rule will severely punish individuals for seeking basic needs and will no doubt put families at risk of separation.

As alluded to earlier, under current law, a petitioner (e.g., family member) for someone applying for a Green Card or admission as an immigrant is typically required to file an “affidavit of support”, which wasn’t always outcome-determinative as to whether an individual would likely at any time in the future become a public charge, but was very helpful in swaying that determination in favor of the applicant.  Not so any longer under the new rule.  Under the new rule, DHS adjudicators will apply a complex totality of circumstances test that weighs the individual’s age, health, family status, education and skills, and assets, resources, and financial status, all while taking into account a broad range of positive and negative factors. DHS has also indicated in the final rule that it interprets “likely at any time” to mean that it is “more likely than not” that the individual at any time in the future will receive one or more public benefits defined by the rule.

There are many consequences to this new rule.  The new rule is far more restrictive than current policy, and no doubt will result in higher denial rates for those applying for Green Cards that are subject to public charge determinations. Moreover, the new multi-factor test will leave too much discretion to DHS adjudicators and likely will also produce inconsistent and unpredictable decisions.

As bad as all that is, and it’s bad, more importantly the announcement of the new rule, and its implementation, has created and will now exacerbate a chilling effect felt throughout immigrant communities.  According to the Urban Institute, about 14% of adults in immigrants families indicated that they or a family member opted not to participate in a non-cash public benefit program in 2018 because of their concern over jeopardizing their green card eligibility.[7]  Again, this new rule will punish individuals for seeking very basic needs.

This new rule is yet another brick in what has come to be known as Trump’s (or dare I again say Stephen Miller’s) “invisible wall”, which has been nothing more than far-reaching policies and practices restricting legal immigration to and in the United States.  Enough is enough.

[1]INA §212(a)(4); 8 U.S.C. §1182(a)(4)(A).

[2]See“Field Guidance on Deportability and Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds,” 64 FR 28689 (May 26, 1999).

[3]An exception to this would be the lack of an “affidavit of support,” if one is required for an individual to become an LPR or to be admitted to the United States.

[4]Seee.g., 8 U.S.C. §1183a.

[5]8 C.F.R. §212.21(a).

[6]The new rule defines a public benefit as (1) Any federal, state, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance, including: (a) Supplemental Security Income (SSI), 42 U.S.C. 1381 et seq.; (b) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), 42 U.S.C. 601 et seq.; (c) Federal, state, or local cash benefits programs for income maintenance (often called “General Assistance” in the State context, but which also exist under other names); (2) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 7 U.S.C. 2011 to 2036c; (3) Section 8 Housing Assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program as administered by HUD under 42 U.S.C. 1437f; (4) Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation) under Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 (42 U.S.C. 1437f); (5) Medicaid, with certain exceptions, such as benefits received by individuals under the age of 21 and pregnant women (or for a period of 60 days after the last day of pregnancy); and (6)

Public housing under section 9 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937.

[7]http://www.urban.org/research/publication/adults-immigrant-families-report-avoiding-routine-activities-because-

immigration-concerns.

Immigration in the News

screen_2x.jpgThe other day, I saw the following headline on the NBC news site: Rep. Steve King: I drank from the toilet-fountain hybrid at border facility and it was ‘pretty good’.  The article describes Rep. King’s recent visit to a migrant detention center where he explains that he “went into that cell where it was reported that they were advised they had to drink out of the toilet” and that drink was “pretty good.”

I’m sorry, what?

I’ve worked in this field, either as a lawyer or an advocate, for over 30 years now. Immigration has always been a hot topic, but never the proverbial third rail of politics as it is today (and has been for about the last three years).  When I read the article, I thought it would be interesting (but ultimately found it to be rather sad) to take a sampling of other immigration-related articles that have been in the news cycle over the last month or so. Here a just a few:

  • Many Moms Say Kid’s Health Worsened in Immigration Custody. According to the New York Times, a Dilley Pro Bono Project study found mothers who were detained this past summer reported that the health of their children worsened in custody, including bouts of fever, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Pentagon Details Programs Targeted for Cuts to Fund Border Wall. The Wall Street Journalreports that the Trump administration plans on diverting $3.6 billion from military-construction projects in 23 states, 3 U.S. territories and at least 19 countries to build or fortify portions of the President’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.  Recall, of course, that the President has told us countless times that the wall would be paid for by Mexico.
  • Chief of U.S. asylum office reassigned as White House pushes for tighter immigration controls.According to the Washington Post, in what appears to be a demotion, the head of the asylum office at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) is being removed from his job and reassigned, “a move that follows multiple White House-directed attempts to raise new barriers to those seeking humanitarian refuge in the United States.”

As I write this article, the articles above are just from the day before. Here are a couple more from August.

  • Trump Administration to Divert Hurricane Relief Funds for Border Detention. Just days before Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and was on track to impact coastal areas of the United States (although not Alabama), The Wall Street Journalreported that the Trump administration planned on using $271 million of Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) appropriated funds, including some funds designated to help hurricane-stricken areas, to detain and remove immigrants who unlawfully cross the southern U.S. border.
  • Fed Up With Immigration Backlog, Lawyers Head to the Courts. As a result of what I can only say feels like unprecedented backlogs and delays, Bloomberg reports that attorneys are turning to the federal courts in an effort to “unclog” massive immigration application backlogs, some lasting up to seven years for simple applications.

There are so many more.  The new “public charge” rule,[1]the immigration raids in Mississippi and the countless kids left parentless as a result of them, and so on and so on.

What have we become?  Who have we become?  The bad news seems endless, and with it, we see almost daily dramatic changes in DHS policy under the Trump administration which have and continue to undermine our legal immigration system that the agencies that were created to facilitate.

There are processing delays, changes impacting students and scholars, changes in the “public charge” ground of inadmissibility, not to mention the ever-present issue that U.S. employers undergo annually to hire coveted H-1B, H-2B or H-2A nonimmigrant workers.

We need to hold DHS and the President accountable for the hardship they are creating to families, vulnerable populations, and U.S. businesses around our great country. The public deserves no less.

[1]I will be addressing this very critical change in a separate article.

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