Kern Sol News breaks down finalized public charge rule; WIC not included

October 3, 2019 /

The Department of Homeland Security recently adopted a new “public charge” rule in August that is set to go into effect in just a few weeks. The final rule rewrites policies that limit who can obtain or keep legal immigration status based on the use of publicly-funded programs. The adjustments made to the rule could make it harder for immigrants to get a green card if they use public government benefits like food stamps or Medicaid.

However, the changes to the rule have received much criticism. Advocates say the new rule, which takes effect Oct. 15, is causing immigrant communities to abandon programs they need out of fear of retaliation from immigration authorities.

“This vile rule is the Trump Administration’s latest attack on families and lower income communities of color,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in August. “It will harm our communities, schools, and workplaces by weaponizing essential healthcare, housing, and nutrition programs.”

“We will not stand idly by while this Administration targets programs that children and families across our state rely upon,” Becerra said. “We are ready to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians.” 

On Wednesday, Becerra was in court attempting to halt the administration’s “cruel, regressive #PublicCharge rule that will hurt working families across our state,” he wrote on Twitter.

“In CA, we believe in helping our communities thrive — not forcing them to forego, food, housing, & healthcare out of fear,” Becerra wrote on Twitter.

California is home to more than 10 million immigrants, and nearly half of all children in California have a parent who is an immigrant, according to Becerra.

Because the final rule will impact California greatly, Kern Sol News broke down the new “public charge” rule. 

What is a “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.

The previous definition of a “public charge” was an immigrant who is “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.”

The new rule changed the definition to a person who “receives one or more public benefit … for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period.”

What does the final “public charge” rule change? 

Federal law already requires people applying for green cards and legal status to prove they will not become a “public charge.” However, the new rule outlines a broader range of programs that could disqualify an applicant. 

Prior to the new rule taking effect, only two types of benefits were considered, such as cash assistance for income maintenance and institutionalization of long-term care government expense; however, immigration officials will now consider other factors such as education, household income and health.

The finalized rule will now also look at benefits like supplemental nutrition assistance programs, such as SNAP or food stamps; non-emergency Medicaid; housing assistance like public housing, Section 8 housing vouchers and rental assistance; and Federal, State, Local and Tribal Cash Assistance.

The new rule also establishes stricter standards when it comes to age, income and family status. The Rule will block the path to citizenship for lower income immigrants and prevent lower income Americans from sponsoring family members to join them in the United States, according to the California Attorney General’s office. 

Before the changes were made to public charge rule, immigrants were most likely not considered a Public Charge if they had an affidavit of support, or a financial commitment from someone supporting them. However, the new rule doesn’t give the affidavit much weight, Ramirez Castro said.  

Immigration officials will also look at the income and financial status of the individual. If the individual is under 125 percent of the federal poverty level, then that is considered a negative. If they are over 250 percent of the federal poverty level, then that is a positive. 

It’s also considered a negative if you are under 18 or over 61 years old and if individuals have medical conditions that are likely to require extensive treatment, institutionalization or interfere with the ability to care for themselves or attend school or work. 

“If you’re not a working age, or you’re too young or too old, they consider that a negative factor,” said Eduardo Ramirez Castro, a project director at the sustainable rural communities project for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. “It’s harder for seniors and children to overcome this requirement.” 

Does Public Charge include WIC Program? 

Officials say benefits affected by the Public Charge rule do not include the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program, a program that provides supplemental nutrition services through food vouchers, access to quality nutritional education and breastfeeding counseling. 

These services do not classify a recipient as a public charge, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services official statements. 

“We’re here to help women take care of themselves and their babies, and to do that they need proper education on nutrition, breastfeeding and their child’s development, said Ruth Bliss, nutrition education coordinator for CAPK WIC. “We let them know when they come into our offices that the information that they provide is kept confidential.”

Who does the final Public Charge rule affect?

The Public Charge rule does not affect all immigrants, Ramirez Castro said. Public Charge applies to those applying for a green card and permission to enter the country with a visa.

Ramirez Castro says because there is a lot of confusion on who is affected by this rule, many mixed-status households are underutilizing benefits.

“A lot of parents are going to continue to underutilize services that they themselves are eligible for or they are going to underutilize the benefits of their children,” he said. “Even individuals who are not subject to public charge feel they should not use benefits because they feel it will affect their loved ones.”

The final rule does not apply to U.S. citizens, even if the U.S. citizen is related to a noncitizen who is subject to the public charge ground of inadmissibility, DHS said. 

The final rule does not create any penalty for past, current or future receipt of public benefits by U.S. citizens or immigrants whom Congress has exempted from the public charge ground of inadmissibility. 

The rule also does not apply to refugees or those seeking asylum, according to DHS. 

What should those impacted do?

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

Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to