South Kern Sol breaks down public charge

September 29, 2018 /

Immigrants who have received public assistance may soon have a more difficult time obtaining a green card under a new rule announced by the Department of Homeland Security this week.

If implemented, federal officials say the rule would save taxpayer dollars by enforcing self-sufficiency among immigrants drawing on public benefits, who are considered by the government as a “public charge.”

“Under long-standing federal law, those seeking to immigrate to the United States must show they can support themselves financially,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in a news release outlining the proposal. “This proposed rule will implement a law passed by Congress intended to promote immigrant self-sufficiency and protect finite resources by ensuring that they are not likely to become burdens on American taxpayers.”

Detractors say the rule would shut the door on millions of immigrants looking to America for a better life.

The proposal marks another instance of the Trump Administration’s long-standing effort of curbing immigration to the United States.

But what are the impacts such a rule would have locally among immigrants — some 4,200 undocumented in South Kern alone?

South Kern Sol breaks down the issue of public charge:

What is “Public Charge?”

Public charge is a term used to describe someone who is or will be primarily dependent on the government as their main source of support, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

The public charge test is applied when an individual wants to obtain a green card or visa to enter the United States. During the application process, immigration officers determine whether or not the individual will need public benefits.

By law, public charge is determined based on factors such as age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills, DHS officials said in a statement.

Self-sufficiency has been part of U.S. immigration law since the country’s earliest immigration statutes — the Immigration Act of 1882, according to DHS officials. Centuries ago, public charge was the most common ground for refusing admission into the U.S., the department said in a statement release Saturday.

Who does it affect?

Public charge applies to those applying for a green card and permission to enter the county with a visa.

The proposed rule estimates nearly 400,000 immigrants already in the U.S. per year would be subject to the new scrutiny, according to CNN.

The proposal may also make it harder for naturalized citizens and legal residents to sponsor family members from low-income countries.

How does it work now?

When officers are conducting the public charge test, they can only look at two types of public benefits — cash assistance for income maintenance, such as CalWORKS and Supplemental Security Income, and long-term institutionalized care at the government’s expense.

How would this affect immigrants in Kern County? 

Eduardo Ramirez Castro, the associate project manager for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Fresno

Although this has been part of U.S. immigration law for quite some time, Eduardo Ramirez Castro, the associate project manager for California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Fresno, says the proposed changes could lead to ineligibility for those seeking to enter the U.S.

“The key takeaway here is this proposal will make it harder for immigrants to obtain lawful status, like a green card and who want to do it lawfully,” he told South Kern Sol. “It will operate as a barrier to those who want to seek immigration status the legal way.”

If the proposed rule is implemented, it would have a great effect on Kern County, Ramirez Castro said.

“This county has high rates of mixed immigration status households,” he said. “This county is covered in great part by a program like MediCal, and it also has an immigration population. All of those factors yield a significant population that would be directly affected by this proposal.”

If the rule is finalized in its proposed form, what would change?

The proposed rule would expand public charge to include more widely used benefits, in addition to the two public benefits listed above.

These benefits would include housing assistance, food stamps, non-emergency MediCal and more.

The proposed rule would also expand what’s considered a “public charge,” moving beyond “primary dependence” to anyone who accepts the equivalent of at least 15 percent of federal poverty guidelines, CNN reports.

In the proposal, DHS says it believes anyone who receives that much assistance “is neither self-sufficient nor on the road to achieving self-sufficiency.”

The DHS proposes to require all immigrants seeking an extension of stay or change of status to demonstrate that they have not received, are not currently receiving, nor are likely to receive, public benefits as defined in the proposed rule.

How will the proposed rule impact those who already have green cards?

The proposal would not impact those who already have a green card, Ramirez Castro said. The public charge rule is not considered when green card holders are applying for citizenship.

However, Ramirez Castro believes the new proposal could have a “chilling effect” on communities.

“The public charge doctrine has always created uncertainty and fear in eligible recipients to enroll in public benefits like Medicare or MediCal,” he said. “That is because they fear that sometime down the road that is going to affect their candidacy for an immigration benefit or their candidacy to become citizen in the future.”

What should those impacted, if implemented, do?

Those impacted should get an immigration consultation with an experienced immigration attorney, Ramirez Castro said.

When will it take effect?

The proposed rule will be officially published in the Federal Register in the coming weeks, according to DHS. Once the proposed rule is officially published, the public will have 60 days to comment on the rule. The DHS is required by law to review the comments and address concerns before proposing the final rule. The official version in the Federal Register will contain information about how to submit comments.

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Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez is the program associate for South Kern Sol. She can be reached at