Urban Wire Five Ways the “Public Charge” Rule Is Affecting Immigrants in America
Hamutal Bernstein, Dulce Gonzalez, Michael Karpman, Sara McTarnaghan, Stephen Zuckerman
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On August 14, the Department of Homeland Security issued the final public charge rule, which makes it easier for immigration officials to deny applications for permanent residency (green cards) or temporary visas to immigrants they deem “more likely than not” to become a public charge.

After the proposed rule was released for public comment last fall, Urban Institute researchers released the first national survey estimates of how the proposed rule dampens immigrant families’ participation in federal programs (such as Medicaid and SNAP) and conducted follow-up interviews with immigrants who reported these chilling effects.

Here are five main takeaways from our research:

1. “Chilling effects” reduce immigrants’ use of safety net programs.

Even though the rule is not yet active, one in seven adults in immigrant families reported that they or a family member did not participate in a noncash government benefit program in 2018 for fear of risking future green card status as the administration considered changing rules for “public charge” determinations. This share was even larger (one in five) among adults in low-income immigrant families. 

Among adults in immigrant families reporting a chilling effect on benefit participation, SNAP was the benefit most commonly cited(by 46.0 percent) followed by Medicaid or CHIP (42.0 percent) and housing assistance (33.4 percent).

2. Chilling effects lead to hardships for immigrant communities.

Social safety net programs provide essential resources for stability and well-being. As immigrant families are deterred from using these programs, they are likely to experience financial, emotional, and physical hardship.

Interviewees most frequently cited a lack of resources for food and adequate nutrition as impacts of stopping program participation (i.e. losing SNAP benefits). They reported coping strategies such as reducing spending on food; changing diets; forgoing access to balanced, nutritious foods; and going to food banks.

I do think it has had a huge impact because people don’t eat like they used to, because everything is too expensive. Before, people could purchase a greater variety of foods using their food stamps. But because we no longer have that aid, well, you eat what you can. If we only have beans and tortillas, then that’s all we eat. Before, food stamps helped us buy a bit more food, like vegetables, meat.

Yo pienso que sí ha afectado muchísimo porque ya no comen de la misma manera, porque todo está muy caro. Antes con las estampillas podían comprar más alimentos más variados. Pero ahora como no tienen esa ayuda, pues, se come lo que se puede. Si solamente podemos comer frijoles y tortillas, solo eso comemos. Anteriormente las estampillas les ayudaban a tener un poco más de alimentos, como verduras, carne.

–Immigrant interviewee

They also spoke about the impacts of losing access to medical care, such as treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes, and preventive care, and routine checkups. Interviewees reported forgoing medical care and only accessing doctors in emergency situations.

3. Chilling effects can “spillover” to people with varying immigration and citizenship statuses.

Although the rule will only directly target adults who do not yet have a green card (i.e., those who are not lawful permanent residents), we observed chilling effects among families with various mixes of immigration and citizenship statuses. Chilling effects on benefit participation were reported by 14.7 percent of adults in immigrant families where all noncitizen members had green cards and by 9.3 percent of those in families where all foreign-born members were naturalized citizens.

Adults in immigrant families we interviewed said that decisions about whether to use benefits were often family decisions, made with relatives who are also affected by one person’s participation.

4. Immigrants’ decisions rely heavily on information from news, social media, and word of mouth.

The survey found high awareness of the proposed public charge rule in December 2018, with 62.9 percent of adults in immigrant families reporting having heard about it. However, most respondents cited confusion and misinformation about the rule, including who it would apply to, when it would become active, and which programs it affected.

Immigrants said they relied most heavily on information in the news, on social media, and from family and friends; they were less likely to seek professional guidance from nonprofit organizations, public agencies, or immigration attorneys to inform their decisions about benefit use.

Interviewees also reported that misinformation was a challenge. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, many immigrants preferred to be overly cautious and stop receiving benefits rather than threaten their own or a family member’s  immigration prospects. 

5. The current immigration climate is shaping how immigrants lead their day-to-day lives.

Confirming reports from service providers and from studies documenting increased fear and avoidance of public settings, we found evidence that immigrant families are avoiding routine activities and interactions with public institutions: one in six adults in immigrant families (17.0 percent) reported that they or a family member avoided some activities in 2018 because they did not want to be asked or bothered about their citizenship status.

People don’t go out with their children with the same ease they had before. I have seen this now more than before. Like I said, people don’t go about with the same spirit as before.

Las personas ya no salen con sus hijos como antes con más tranquilidad. Sí, se ha visto eso más que antes. Como le digo, el ánimo de la gente ya no es el mismo. 

–Immigrant interviewee

The activities immigrant families avoided most were those that risk interaction with police or other public authorities, such as driving a car, renewing or applying for a driver’s license, or talking to the police or reporting crime. Some immigrants also reported refraining from going to public places, like parks, libraries, or stores; visiting a doctor or clinic; and using public transportation.

How the updated public charge rule will work

The updated rule establishes new guidelines by which the Department of Homeland Security will interpret the factors used to determine the likelihood of becoming a public charge (under a totality of circumstances test) when a person applies for admission or adjustment of status. Characteristics such as poor health, low educational attainment, and public program participation can count as negative weights in these determinations.

People applying for a green card or adjustment of status on or after October 15, 2019, who receive public benefits for more than a cumulative total of 12 months within a 36-month period will have a large negative weight applied during public charge determinations. If several benefit are received in one month, each will be counted as a month of benefits.

The final rule clarifies that public benefits received on behalf of another person will not be counted against a green card or visa applicant so long as the applicant is not named as a beneficiary of that benefit.

But the public charge guidelines expand the current interpretation of public benefit receipt. They now include key safety net programs such as Medicaid (with exceptions for emergency services, children under age 21, pregnant women, and women who have given birth in the past 60 days), SNAP, and housing assistance.

The updated rule is part of the Trump administration’s sweeping changes to federal immigration policy, including heightened immigration enforcement, terminations of temporary protections against deportation, and cuts to refugee and asylee admissions.


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Research Areas Immigration
Tags Welfare and safety net programs Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant children, families, and communities Federal, state, and local immigration and integration policy
Policy Centers Health Policy Center Income and Benefits Policy Center