The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently proposed changing how it decides whether a person is or will likely become dependent on government assistance. If implemented, this change would make it harder for immigrants to meet the government’s standard of self-sufficiency—and may deter them and others from using government services for which they are eligible. Through December 10, DHS is requesting public comments on the proposal, which could potentially have wide-ranging impacts on California and its large immigrant population.
The federal government can typically deny applications for green cards or entry into the United States to people who are or will likely become “public charges,” i.e., dependent on government assistance. Under current guidance, DHS considers an immigrant a public charge if they receive more than half of their income from cash assistance—which includes TANF (known as CalWORKs in California), General Assistance (GA), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—or are in government-funded, long-term institutional care (like a nursing home).
The proposed rule is much broader: it defines dependence as receiving more than about $1,800 (for 2018) in assistance from not only the current programs but also the food assistance program SNAP (CalFresh) and/or Section 8 housing vouchers and rental assistance. DHS also proposes that an income of less than 125% of the federal poverty level ($25,100 in 2018 for a family of four) would be a strong predictor of becoming a public charge and recommends length of enrollment in certain health programs as another factor to consider.
How big of a change is this? While data aren’t available to examine safety net participation among the noncitizens whose immigration cases would be affected by the rule, we estimate that even before including health programs, as many as 23% of all Californians would be considered public charges, or likely to become so—which gives a sense of how broad the proposed rule is. Some 18.7% of Californians would be considered likely to become public charges based on their income level alone. By contrast, at most 1.2% of all Californians receive more than half their income from CalWORKs, GA, and SSI, and would be considered public charges under the current rule. These calculations are based on the California Poverty Measure (CPM), a joint effort of PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
California has more immigrants than any other state—and hence much at stake. For those on visas, the proposed rule would make it harder to qualify for a green card or extend their stay. But in practice, the largest impact would likely be on immigrants and their families who, purely out of caution, forego safety net benefits for which they are eligible. DHS cites this sort of disenrollment as a source of long-term savings—but notes that these savings are liable to be offset by worse public health outcomes and increased poverty rates. Based on studies of welfare reform in the 1990s, the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research estimates that if the rule change takes place, 15% to 35% of families with noncitizens might disenroll from safety net programs. At the high end, as many as 765,000 people could disenroll from CalFresh and Medi-Cal, leading to around $1 billion less in federal aid to California each year.
California’s attorney general and some local governments have already voiced their opposition to the proposed changes, which come at a time when the state has been expanding access to health and social safety net programs. Reduced participation in these programs, whether from reasonable or unnecessary caution, would directly counteract the state’s efforts to reduce poverty. Public comment for the proposal closes on December 10.