When I joined the Michigan League for Public Policy three years ago, one of the first topics I dove into was the “public charge” regulation and the work of the Protecting Immigrant Families – Michigan (PIF-MI) campaign.
A few weeks before my start date, the Trump administration published its final rule on public charge on August 14, 2019. In fact, the coalition held a same-day press conference to address the rule change and we continued to speak out against the change when the first injunctions were issued.
Trump’s 2019 rule change expanded how government officials administer the “public charge” provision of immigration law. These changes put future immigration applications at risk if lawfully present immigrants used certain health, housing and nutrition benefits. Research confirms that this expansive rule’s “chilling effect” deterred millions of eligible people in immigrant families from getting help and health care, even as need grew during the pandemic.
Despite the profound impact this rule has had on millions of people over the last three years, including immigrant families here in Michigan, the federal rulemaking process is slow and it lacks flashy bill signings and speeches, which means it can often feel more removed and less engaging to the average person – or even seasoned advocates.
Yet, over the past three years, in addition to community-driven efforts to keep families informed, there have been nine lawsuits about the Trump-era public charge rule and over 1,500 comments submitted as part of a new rulemaking process under the Biden administration.
That process culminated in the Biden administration publishing a new, narrower public charge regulation in September. Last year, the current administration actually ended the Trump administration’s policy, reverting to policy guidance that had been in place since 1999. However, because that policy had never been formalized, a future presidential administration could change it quickly, creating fear within immigrant communities again.
The recently released public charge rule not only formalizes the 1999 policy, making it harder for future presidents to change and further confuse immigrant families and create unnecessary fear.
It also makes clear that:
- Eligible immigrants can use health care, nutrition and housing programs without public charge concerns
- A child’s or another family member’s use of federal safety net programs never affects the applicant’s immigration status
- The only two types of public benefits considered are (1) long-term institutional care paid for by Medicaid and (2) cash assistance for income maintenance, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and state, local and tribal cash assistance
This updated rule is certainly great news, but there is still work to do.
First, immigrants in Michigan and their families can only benefit from the new regulation if they know the policy has changed and feel confident in accessing public benefits they are eligible for. Federal, state and local leaders must all now ensure immigrant families know about the policy change.
State and local government agencies and offices in Michigan should seek partnerships with community organizations, like those in PIF-MI, among other advocates. The latter are uniquely positioned to effectively close the information gap because of the skills they have and community trust they have earned. But when combined with a broader public platform, greater resources and a stamp of governmental approval, community outreach efforts will be even more fruitful.
Second, the Biden administration’s public charge rule is likely to be challenged in court. However, there are solid grounds for a court to uphold this rule (in part because of the procedures this administration followed in issuing this final rule). PIF-MI will be sure to keep families informed about the implications of any forthcoming lawsuits.
Finally, there is more Congress can do. The new regulation is constrained by the underlying public charge provision of federal immigration law — in place since 1882 and historically used to exclude immigrants of color with low incomes —and no regulation can change that. Advocates must continue to push for Congress to repeal our immigration law’s racist public charge provision and to eliminate other barriers to the health and social services safety net.
After three years in the making, the time is now: we can celebrate a new public charge rule, know the facts and ensure that Michigan’s immigrant families are healthy, strong and can thrive.
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