February 28, 2020: Public benefits provide important support that help people achieve self-sufficiency. But the Trump administration chooses to base its policies on myths about people who use public benefits. The administration’s expansion of the “public charge” rule seeks to chill immigration by establishing that immigrants who receive non-cash benefits, like Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps), and federal housing assistance, are ineligible for permanent residency and subject to deportation. In January, the PJC filed six amicus briefs challenging this rule.
The government defines a public charge as an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Since the public charge rule was established nearly 70 years ago, it has denied residency only to the small percentage of immigrants who receive cash benefits like TANF (assistance for families with children) or rely on expensive long-term nursing home care. The Trump administration’s expansion of the rule to include non-cash benefits significantly increases the number of immigrants affected and has even made immigrants who are already U.S. citizens afraid to use public benefits.
The PJC’s briefs, authored by staff attorneys Monisha Cherayil, Sally Dworak-Fisher, and Tyra Robinson, support lawsuits filed by state attorneys general and nonprofits in federal courts in Maryland, New York, California, and Washington. These cases had obtained preliminary injunctions to prevent the implementation of the expanded public charge rule, which the Trump administration then appealed in the Second, Fourth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. The PJC’s briefs argue that non-cash benefit programs were designed, in part, to help working families achieve a higher quality of life and weather short-term financial crises and, in fact, operate this way in practice. So even though these programs play a crucial role in supporting individuals and families with very low incomes in simply surviving, they also serve as a valuable support to those who do provide for their own subsistence but can use additional resources to access safer neighborhoods, healthier food, and more consistent medical care. These programs also help mitigate the effects of a job loss or an unexpected medical expense. In other words, these programs can provide a path out of poverty—the very opposite of leading to becoming a public charge. Given these purposes and effects of non-cash benefits, the briefs support arguments that the Trump administration lacks a legal basis for treating every immigrant who uses these programs as a potential long-term “public charge” on the U.S. government.
In recent weeks, the Supreme Court has lifted the injunctions nationwide. This allowed the Trump administration to begin implementing the rule on February 24, 2020. Despite the setback, litigation challenging the rule will move forward. We hope that our briefs will help the courts understand that public benefits are a stepping stone to self-sufficiency for immigrants, just like for other Americans.