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Proposed rule nixes Trump interpretation of ‘public charge’

Immigrants would not be penalized for seeking health benefits, other services

“The 2019 public charge rule was not consistent with our nation’s values,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said.
“The 2019 public charge rule was not consistent with our nation’s values,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Immigrants’ use of non-cash government benefits would not threaten their eligibility for green cards under a proposed change to the so-called public charge rule unveiled Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security.

The proposal, the department’s interpretation of a historic regulation designed to keep out immigrants the government deems likely to rely on public assistance, thus becoming a “public charge,” marks a return to a long-standing interpretation that the Trump administration did away with.

In 2019, the Trump administration rolled out a rule expanding the types of government benefits that could disqualify immigrants from obtaining green cards to include Medicaid, public housing assistance and other non-cash programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

“The 2019 public charge rule was not consistent with our nation’s values,” said Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement, promising a return to a “historical understanding” of the policy where immigrants are not penalized for seeking out health benefits and other services.

The new proposed rule would define someone as “likely to become a public charge” if they are “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” The 2019 rule was based on a definition that included any immigrant “who receives one or more public benefits” for more than 12 months in any three-year period.

Immigrants’ use of Supplemental Security Income, cash assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, state and local cash assistance programs for income maintenance, and long-term institutionalization at government expense would still be grounds for inadmissibility under the proposed rule.

The Biden administration stopped enforcing the Trump-era public charge rule last March after the Supreme Court dismissed a pair of cases over the policy’s legality. The dismissal came shortly after the Biden administration asked the high court to toss government appeals of court decisions against the rule.

President Joe Biden had promised on the campaign trail to reverse the rule, saying in his immigration platform that the policy “runs counter to our values as Americans and the history of our nation.”

A few months later, DHS directed states to encourage eligible immigrants to sign up for benefits, emphasizing the Trump-era interpretation of the public charge rule was no longer in effect. Critics of the policy had warned it left noncitizens, such as children in mixed-status households, fearful of accessing benefits that Congress intended them to have.

Suzanne Monyak contributed to this report.

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