Preparing for Public Charge Rule Implementation: A Guide for State and Local Administrators

Change is coming to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as the federal government prepares to implement its final “public charge rule” on October 15. (Note: On Friday, October 11, a federal judge ordered a preliminary injunction blocking the rule, casting implementation at least temporarily in doubt.)The new rule requires immigration officials to consider a green card applicant’s past or current use of government benefits as a negative factor in evaluating their application for lawful permanent residency status.

While this rule change directly impacts the immigration process, it has broad implications to our nation’s safety net and to state and local leaders who administer public benefits programs. We anticipate three main issues:

  • A decline in applications;
  • Increased churn, due to existing enrollees failing to renew their applications;
  • Increase in requests to terminate existing cases or enrollment for anyone in the family.

The rule will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on applications for public assistance, as would-be applicants choose to “stay under the radar” and/or have a “clean immigration case.”

Unfortunately, this effect will likely spread far beyond the applicants whom the rule specifically may impact, due to the complex reality immigrants face. Eligible applicants — including citizens — will undoubtedly choose to forgo needed food, housing, or health to try to protect family members affected by the new rule. Although many immigrant families are “mixed status,” with both citizens and non-citizens in the household, we anticipate that many will either withdraw or not apply for benefits, even eligible family members who are not impacted by the public charge rule (see below). This has the potential to affect a broad swath of kids as about 10 million U.S. children (13% of all children in the country) have a non-citizen parent, according to a 2017 analysis from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

In addition, for those who are still willing to apply for assistance, we anticipate confusion. There are many situations to which the new immigration rule does not apply, and the rule does not impact every non-citizen. The rule does not apply to those who are already legal permanent residents (LPRs), naturalized citizens, children born in the U.S., and certain lawfully present immigrants such as refugees. Second, receipt of benefits that are available to low-income individuals regardless of immigration status — such as immunizations, a food pantry, community health clinic or primary education — should not be included in the public charge test. This is to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all individuals in the community.

While many program administrators are already preparing for the public charge rule implementation, here are some recommended actions to consider:

Conduct Outreach
  • Develop communications outreach plans for communities that explain how the new public charge rule impacts them. Point out circumstances in which eligible immigrants or “mixed-status” families may receive services and not affect other family members’ immigration cases.

  • Develop plans for outreach to those who fail to renew their benefits, to ensure that they are aware they may still qualify under the new rule.

  • Provide a FAQ or a list of resources on the online portal or mobile app, as well as for staff to share with families in-person.

  • Provide information through multiple communication avenues. For example, mailing translated, written notices may not be as effective as social media updates or text messages to relay critical information.

Leverage Data
  • Use data resources to document the impact of the public charge rule to programs. For example, use program data to understand the effect on program enrollment and retention, increased call volume at the call centers, administrative costs, and other potential consequences of the rule, such as increase in emergency room visits.
  • Set up ongoing data queries on program enrollment to see trends and inform key stakeholders (i.e., local, state, or federal legislators), as well as outreach efforts.
  • Monitor data on churn and application submissions to see if there are patterns affecting certain groups, or potentially to direct people to local resources for legal assistance or other services that are available regardless of immigration status.
  • In a similar way, use program data to understand the outcome of the public charge rule on program enrollment broadly, in terms of enrollment, budget and potentially other safety net programs.
  • Determine what, if any, additional types of data may be needed based on questions raised by the implementation of the new rules.
Provide Training
  • Train front-line staff on how the rule could potentially affect new applicants or enrollees, and how to prepare for confusion and questions.
  • Provide clear guidance to front-line staff on what advice they can and cannot provide. For example, eligibility staff should not provide a family with direct immigration advice but could instead provide a list of immigration resources.

Typically, when a major policy change takes place, there are unintended consequences. By preparing for impacts from the USCIS rule changes to state and locally administered public benefit programs, we can minimize and mitigate the impact on these changes to our communities, and also gain a deeper understanding of what is happening in these programs. Doing so will help us make better policy and technology decisions in the future.

Further Reading

Public Charge: Getting the Help You Need (Protecting Immigrant Families)

Chilling Effects: The Expected Public-Charge Rule and Its Impact on Immigrant Families (Migration Policy Institute)

Five Ways the “Public Charge” Rule Is Affecting Immigrants in America (Urban Institute)

Safety Net Access in the Context of the Public Charge Rule (Urban Institute)

Public Charge: A Threat to Children’s Health and Wellbeing (CLASP)

Public Charge Under the New Rule (Immigrant Legal Resource Center)