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New ‘public charge’ rule would shut out working-class immigrants and harm millions of families

August 12, 2019

Marion Davis, 781-654-5160 (MIRA)
Suzanne Curry, 617-275-2977 (HCFA/HLA)
Suzanne Morse, 617-646-1020 (MLRI)

New ‘public charge’ rule would shut out working-class immigrants and harm millions of families

The rule, which goes into effect Oct. 15, would deny green cards or immigrant visas to anyone deemed ‘more likely than not’ to use one of several safety-net programs someday, unless they earn over 250% of the federal poverty line.

BOSTON – The Trump administration on Wednesday will publish a new rule that would curtail legal immigration by vastly expanding who can be denied a green card or visa because they are deemed at risk of becoming a “public charge.”

The rule, which goes into effect on Oct. 15, would redefine “public charge” – a person who depends on government benefits and thus may be turned away – to include not only immigrants who receive cash benefits or need long-term care, but also people with disabilities, those deemed to have limited earning potential, and participants in many “safety net” programs used by millions of working Americans. Overall, it would make it much easier to shut out anyone earning less than 250% of the federal poverty line ($64,375 for a family of four).

“This rule is a perfect example of the wanton cruelty and bigotry that drive this administration,” said Eva A. Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). “It accomplishes two hateful goals at once: to keep out immigrants who are not wealthy on arrival – mainly people of color – and to sow fear in immigrant families and deter them from accessing ‘safety net’ programs that help keep their children safe, healthy, nourished and learning.”

The Trump administration has been seeking to redefine “public charge” since 2017, and issued a formal proposal last October. News about the rule change fueled widespread fear in immigrant communities, and advocates, educators and health care and social service providers have seen many families drop out of programs. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of advocates and individual citizens submitted public comments warning about the severe harm that the rule could cause.

The final rule unveiled today by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security adds exceptions for Medicaid coverage received by anyone under 21 and by pregnant women (including 60 days postpartum), and it removes Medicare Part D discounts for seniors from the list of programs to be considered. It also continues to exclude benefits received by U.S. citizen children of immigrants. However, it still includes Medicaid coverage, housing assistance and nutrition programs. Most important, because the “public charge” test focuses on applicants’ income, if they don’t earn enough, whether they receive benefits may be effectively irrelevant.

“This is a cruel, reprehensible attempt by the Trump Administration to use access to health care, food, and housing to further its war on immigrants and immigrant communities,” said Georgia Katsoulomitis, executive director of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI). “The published rule will punish low-income, low-wage working immigrants seeking permanent residence in the U.S for accessing assistance for basic human needs. This subverts the nation’s long-standing immigration laws and family unification policy, because new immigrants will not be able to meet this radical new income test. Great nations bring together and strengthen families trying to get ahead; they do not tear them apart. MLRI will work with its many partners nationally and locally to protect the rights of our immigrant families and limit the damage to the Commonwealth that will result from this destructive and shortsighted policy change.”

The rule is not retroactive, and there is a 60-day grace period after the rule is published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. This means that the earliest that immigrants would need to withdraw from programs to avoid being penalized would be Oct. 15, but they should consult with their immigration counselors or attorneys before making a decision.

In the meantime, Massachusetts advocates will continue to work intensively to inform immigrant communities about the changes and their legal rights, and reach out to social service and health care providers to ensure that they have the tools they need to advise their clients and patients.

“This policy is immoral and unjust and does not align with the values of the Commonwealth,” said Amy Rosenthal, executive director of Health Care For All (HCFA). “The best way to build a strong community is to ensure that everyone who lives here has the food, medical care, shelter, and other basics they need to thrive. HCFA has fought for three decades to ensure that individuals and families in the Commonwealth have access to the health care coverage they need and we are proud that we lead the country with the lowest uninsured rate – 97% of our residents have health care coverage. This rule takes us back in time.”

One in five workers in Massachusetts is an immigrant, including over 59% of medical and life scientists, but also 72.1% of housekeeping employees, 49.4% of taxi drivers, and 48% of nursing, psychiatric and home health aides. At all levels of education, immigrants earn less, on average, than their native-born counterparts, reflecting the challenges of getting started in a new country. Nevertheless, immigrant households in the Commonwealth pay an estimated $8.4 billion per year in federal and $3.5 billion in local and state taxes, plus payroll taxes. Existing policies sharply limit immigrants’ access to public benefits.

MIRA, MLRI, HCFA and HLA are part of the national Protecting Immigrant Families campaign, which was launched to oppose any “public charge” expansion that harms families. Leaders of the campaign, starting with the National Immigration Law Center, have vowed to challenge the new rule in court.


The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition is the largest coalition working to advance the rights and integration of our Commonwealth’s 1.1 million foreign-born residents. Its more than 130 organizational members include grassroots community organizations, refugee resettlement agencies, service providers, faith-based organizations and civil and human rights advocates.

Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) is a nonprofit poverty law and policy center. It provides statewide advocacy and leadership in advancing laws, policies, and practices that secure economic, racial, and social justice for low-income people and communities. MLRI advances its mission through legal initiatives and policy reforms that address the root causes of poverty, remove barriers to opportunity, and create a path to economic stability for low-income individuals, families, and communities.

Health Care For All is a non-profit advocacy group that envisions a Massachusetts in which everyone has the equitable, affordable, and comprehensive care they need to be healthy. Health Care For All promotes health justice in Massachusetts by working to reduce disparities and ensure coverage and access for all.

Health Law Advocates is a nonprofit public interest law firm that provides pro bono legal representation to low-income residents experiencing difficulty accessing or paying for needed medical services. HLA is committed to ensuring universal access to quality health care in Massachusetts, particularly for those who are most at risk due to such factors as race, gender, disability, age, or geographic location.