Public charge rule goes into effect

New federal regulations impose wealth test on immigrants

A NEW RULE that imposes a wealth test on green card and visa applicants took effect Monday, and across Massachusetts, advocates are concerned about what this could mean for immigrants.  

Under the change, immigrants who want to apply for a green card, or lawful permanent residence, or a visa to enter the US will have to pass a test that poses a litany of new questions about income and benefits to be submitted to US Citizenship and Immigration Services.   

Immigration services will review all of the person’s circumstances, including their age, income, health, education, English language skills, and sponsor’s affidavit of support. The government will also consider whether a person has used certain public programs, like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance program (food stamps), federal public housing and Section 8 vouchers, Medicaid, (except for emergency services, children under 21 years, pregnant women and new mothers), and any cash assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income.

Noncitizen immigrants make up about 6.5 percent of Medicaid recipients, and 8 percent of food assistance recipients. 

If immigration services concludes that a green card applicant might be on public assistance in the future, that would also be grounds to deny legal status.   

Advocates say most people subject to the new rule are not eligible for the above listed benefits, and should keep in mind that food banks, state and local health care programs, school lunches, the federal insurance program covering low-income children, and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program don’t count either.  

While critics have said the rule change undermines the country’s long embrace of those looking to make a better life in the US, immigration authorities defended the new policy as consistent with American values.  

“This rule enforces longstanding law requiring aliens to be self-sufficient, reaffirming the American ideals of hard work, perseverance and determination,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration services. “It also offers clarity and expectations to aliens considering a life in the United States and will help protect our public benefit programs.” 

A group of immigration advocacy and health care organizations convened by the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement held a teach-in on Monday at Boston City Hall to educate community members and attorneys about the changes. 

Advocates say a big concern is the broad range of incomes that will be grounds for potential rejection by immigration officials. Anyone with income under 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or $65,000 for a family of four, will be subject to scrutiny. 

“Overnight, eligibility for green cards has been dramatically reduced,” said Marion Davis, spokeswoman for Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy coalition 

Bethany Li, an attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, talks about concerns within the Asian-American community around public charge. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

Bethany Li, an attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services said that the Asian community will be heavily impacted. “In the Asian-American community, most people are family-sponsored,” she said of those seeking entry to the US. She cited the example of someone who has an elderly, retired parent in China who wants to join them in the US. “Their income won’t meet the poverty level here if he tries to get a green card,” she said of the potential immigrant 

The rule change would impact anyone in the US seeking a green card through a family petition, including anyone who is the child, spouse, or family member of a US citizen, and all undocumented immigrants in the country illegally applying for a green card. 

Immigration services has said that the intention is to clarify the public charge law, which has been part of the Immigration and Nationality Act since at least the 1950s.  

A new document called an I-944 will used by the Department of Homeland Security to have individuals applying for legal status explain their ability to maintain self-sufficiency. 

Questions about health insurance, including details on premium costs and deductibles, are included. Previously, only proof of insurance was needed for the process. 

Advocates are concerned some immigrants may believe they need to unenroll from public programs that they or their children qualify for out of concern with how that information could be used against them in the future.  

“We don’t want to scare people, said Andrew Cohen, a staff attorney for Health Law Advocates. “But just because the benefits they have aren’t going to be a problem doesn’t mean they’re going to be safe, because if they’re poor, they can still be denied a green card.”  

Maria Gonzalez Albuixech of Health Care for All said the organization has fielded over 80 calls about the public charge rule and how it will impact people with health insurance, but none of the callers will be affected because they all have state-based coverage. “Of the calls, we have not found anyone who is counted for federal Medicaid, which is subject to the public charge rule,” she said.   

Multiple lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule, with the US Supreme Court lifting the last nationwide injunction that blocked implementation last week as the cases progress.  

Last August, Attorney General Maura Healey estimated that the public charge rule could cause 90,000 enrollees in MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, including 20,00 children, to lose their coverage. She also estimated that as many as 60,000 enrollees in Connector Care, which subsidizes coverage for lower-income residents under 65 years old, may pull out of the program out of concern that continuing to participate in the program could jeopardize their immigration status. 

Prior to the new rule, an affidavit from a sponsor stating a person would not be a public charge and that the sponsor agreed to financially support an immigrant in the event of an emergency was sufficient to apply for permanent status. That will no longer be the case.  

The controversial new rule will not affect immigrants in the middle of removal proceedings, which includes a little less than 40,000 people in Massachusetts. It also does not apply to individuals seeking to adjust their status as refugees, asylum recipients, domestic violence visa beneficiaries, or those immigrants who have applied for a visa as victims of crimes (a U-visa).  

A representative from Boston Medical Center expressed concern at the teach-in with how doctors will know what to tell patients when they’re asked about obtaining health-related public benefits, such as access to food pantries. Advocates recommended referring patients to an attorney on a list compiled by the advocacy group Health Care for All. They also say people wait to apply for green card until they get all aspects of their paperwork in order, and see how the new rules play out.  

Mahsa Khanbabai, head of the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Law Association, said as far as she knows Customs and Immigration Services officers in New England have not received guidance or training yet on the public charge changes. “The good news is attorneys have time to prepare,” she said.  

Khanbabai said that the new forms created by USCIS to figure out whether an individual is a public charge are complicated. “Someone might be here as student at Northeastern and needs to convert a student visa to work visa,” she said. “It used to be simple, but now you have this added layer of public charge.” 

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.