For the past year, immigrant rights advocates and anti-poverty activists have watched with horror as the Trump administration prepared to roll out expansive “public charge” regulations as a central part of its war on immigrants.
Public charge regulations have been on the books since the late 19th century; they allow the government to deny visas to would-be immigrants if it seems likely they will end up reliant on government cash aid. More broadly, in theory, they allow for a noncitizen immigrant’s use of public cash assistance programs to be grounds for the government to begin deportation proceedings.
In practice, however, the definition of “public charge” has always been limited, crafted to exclude emergency housing, health, and nutritional assistance. As I have written in other articles, there’s good reason for that: Aside from the strong moral arguments against letting poor people go hungry and sick, no rational government would want immigrant communities to, for example, forgo vaccinating their children in order to avoid a punitive reaction from immigration authorities; that has all the makings of a public health catastrophe. No rational government of a country with millions of immigrants would want millions of immigrant children to show up at school hungry each morning because their parents are afraid to apply for food stamps. No rational government would want hundreds of thousands of immigrant families to risk homelessness because of a temporary dip in their financial situation.
Simply out of self-interest, a country such as the United States cannot afford to drive millions of legal immigrants entirely outside the social safety net. Yet that is what the odious Trump team is now doing. From day one, they have wanted to expand public charge definitions into a catch-all that would allow them to lock the country down against poor, nonwhite immigrants. With this measure, they aim to turn legal immigrants into illegal immigrants by a bureaucratic sleight of hand designed to penalize them for even the whisper of economic insecurity.
Over the past couple of years, immigration officers in US embassies overseas have been given extraordinary discretion in how they interpret the category of public charge. In 2016, according to an analysis of State Department data by Politico, only seven people were denied visas to enter the United States on public charge grounds. By 2019, that number had soared to 5,343.
The changes have now hit home. For months, as rumors of the impending regulatory shift swept immigrant communities, advocates and service delivery organizations have reported a mass exodus of immigrants from public assistance. I have spoken with community clinic doctors in immigrant neighborhoods who have told me about clients refusing lifesaving visits to the hospital; one doctor reported that an elderly man who was having a stroke in her clinic office wouldn’t let her call an ambulance because he feared it would affect his family’s immigration status. I have spoken with immigrant women so fearful of deportation that they declined housing assistance for their US-citizen children. I have interviewed anti-poverty advocates who tell me about clients disenrolling en masse from the food stamp program.
Now it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
Monday morning, those destructive changes became reality—despite the fact that during the two-month period for public comment the overwhelming majority of the quarter-million-plus comments filed were opposed to the changes, according to not just groups such as the National Immigration Law Center but also the government itself. The new public charge regulations were released as an 837-page document in the Federal Register; as a result, 60 days from now, they will become the law of the land.
In theory, when a rule change of this magnitude is proposed, the Administrative Procedures Act mandates that the relevant government agencies take the public comments seriously. That clearly hasn’t happened. A record number of comments were filed against this change—by doctors, nurses, teachers, housing advocates, local officials, faith leaders, immigrants, community activists, and others—and yet the government has decided to ignore them. It is instead moving ahead with a sweeping change that will damage the lives of millions of people, including huge numbers of US-citizen children.
The regulations, crafted by anti-immigration hard-liners in Washington, dramatically expand the definition of “public charge.” They render any noncitizen immigrants who use Medicaid (or enroll their US-citizen children in the program), access public housing, or enroll their family members in the food stamp program as potentially deportable. As a corollary, the Justice Department is moving forward with changes that will make it easier to initiate deportation proceedings against those found to be in violation of the new regulations. Millions of legal immigrants could, in consequence, see the terrifying might of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection unleashed against them over the coming years.
This power grab by the Trump administration bypasses Congress and fundamentally rewrites more than half a century of US immigration policy via an obscure bureaucratic change. It is yet another horrendous example of the sadism, the cruelty for the sake of cruelty, at the heart of Trump’s presidency.
Immigrant-rights groups such as the National Immigration Law Center have announced that they will sue to block implementation of the new public charge rules. Over the past year, as the change has moved through the system, Baltimore, California, New York, and other cities and states have also indicated their willingness to challenge the changes in court. This is encouraging, but it’s not enough. This moment requires an all-hands-on-deck response: massive public protests, noncooperation with immigration authorities using the databases of public assistance programs to expand the deportation machine, and most important, creation of parallel city and state social safety nets that can act as protectors of America’s immigrant poor in the face of this malignant new federal policy.
If millions of immigrants in California and New York and elsewhere are at risk of deportation if they use any federal assistance program, then these and other states with large immigrant populations have a moral duty to create their own housing, health care, and food assistance programs—ones that are tailored for immigrants and specifically barred by law from sharing information with federal authorities. They might also want to consider working out ways to withhold tax dollars from the federal government so long as this noxious and legally dubious public charge rule remains on the books.
That sounds extraordinary on the face of it, but these are truly extraordinary times. The US government has essentially declared open war on millions of Americans and on our diverse, pluralistic communities. This is Trump’s boldest attempt yet at implementing his white ethno-state agenda. It must not be allowed to stand.