Urban Wire How Uncertainty Surrounding the “Public Charge” Rule Leads to Hardship for Immigrant Families
Hamutal Bernstein, Sara McTarnaghan, Dulce Gonzalez
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Recent Urban Institute survey data show that heightened immigration-related fears and concerns are shaping immigrant families’ daily lives. Many families are changing their daily routines and avoiding safety net programs. This “chilling effect” and fear is affecting families with a wide range of immigration and citizenship statuses, including green card holders and US citizens.

To complement our national survey findings, we conducted follow-up interviews with 25 adults in immigrant families in March 2019. We spoke with interviewees across the US who had reported avoiding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and/or housing assistance in 2018 because of immigration concerns.

Interviews included a diverse set of immigrant family experiences, including green card holders with US-born children, US-born partners of immigrant spouses, asylum seekers, student visa holders, and others.

We wanted to understand how chilling effects were playing out on the ground, what sources of information families were accessing about the proposed changes to the public charge rule, and how losing public supports had affected their well-being. The interviews highlight the unique challenges posed by fear and misinformation and the pressures experienced by immigrant families.

Here are three key findings:

Confusion and misunderstanding surround the proposed public charge rule

Interviewees voiced fear and confusion about the basic features of the administration’s proposed expansion of the public charge rule, which would make it harder for immigrants who have used public assistance to get a green card or a temporary visa.

Perspectives included uncertainty about who the rule would apply to and whether it would apply to current green card holders and citizenship applicants, when it would be enforced, and which public programs would be considered.

Chilling effects appeared to be “spilling over” beyond those directly affected by the proposed public charge rule (i.e., immigrants who do not yet have a green card). A wide range of people were reported to be experiencing chilling effects, including immigrants without green cards, green card holders, and naturalized and US-born citizens, especially children.

Many immigrants rely on media, and few seek out of professional advice

Interviewees mainly reported the news media as their principal source of information on the proposed rule, though they also received information from relatives and social networks. They shared that decisions about benefits participation are often family decisions being made together with relatives, where children’s welfare is a central consideration.

Interviewees rarely mentioned people seeking professional legal advice. When they did, most reported that lawyers advised against participating in safety net programs. Interviewees also rarely mentioned consulting professionals in community-based organizations or government offices.

Immigrant adults and children are already facing hardships

Most interviewees who reported losing access to benefits cited resulting financial, emotional, and/or physical hardship. The most frequently mentioned effect was insufficient resources for food and adequate nutrition resulting from losing access to SNAP. Many described coping mechanisms such as reducing spending on food, changing diets, and looking into charitable resources like food banks.

Interviewees shared that losing access to Medicaid put people in a position of forgoing treatment for chronic conditions and preventive medical care.

Interviews made clear the financial stress that families are facing and the key role that public assistance can play as a work support for low-income families. One interviewee reflected on how important public supports are to help fill working families’ basic needs.

Here no one is a public charge. We work very hard in this country… extremely hard. And the cost of living is higher every day.... When we ask for assistance from the government… it’s because, truly, food is expensive… and our incomes are just not enough to cover the high cost of rent.… So, because they [the government] offers help to cover the costs of food, well, we apply for a bit of help... to help cover the costs of food.… Food to be healthy and to be able to work. I don’t consider myself a public charge. Nor do I consider others who, out of need, get help from food stamps or Medicaid… to be a public charge.… Someone who is working in this country cannot be a public charge because that person is giving their all to this country, adding value to this country.

Aquí nadie es carga pública. Nosotros trabajamos muy duro en este país… pero fuerte. Y cada vez los precios son más altos.… Cuando se le pide ayuda al gobierno… es que realmente la comida está elevada de precio… no alcanza el salario que uno tiene para pagar las rentas que están elevadas.… Como ellos [el gobierno] brindan una ayuda de alimentos, pues, uno pide algo… para poder ayudar en los alimentos.… Comer para poder estar sano y poder trabajar. Yo no me considero una carga pública. Ni considero tampoco que las personas que reciben por necesidad esa ayuda de food stamps o de Medicaid… que sea una carga pública.… La persona que trabaja en este país no puede ser una carga pública porque está dando de él mismo a este país, beneficiando a este país.

Although this reflects one poignant perspective, the wide-ranging effects around the public charge rule are striking. Interviewees shared perspectives of:

  • green card holders who have lived in the US for many years and have US-born children who they fear being separated from,
  • US-born spouses with immigrant partners, looking to protect their families’ wellbeing,  
  • H1-B holders waiting their turn in the green card line, afraid they would have to leave any day and uproot their families,
  • and other temporary statuses like temporary protected status recipients, asylum seekers, graduate students on temporary visas, and others.

The diversity of our interviewees reflects how the immigration system touches many in the US and highlights the uncertainty that many are facing in the current immigration policy context.

The early impacts described in the interviews shed light on some immediate consequences of losing access to safety net programs. The longer-term outlook for families and communities will need to be monitored as chilling effects potentially expand.


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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 From Safety Net to Solid Ground
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center