Know Your Rights: “Public Charge”

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There’s been a lot of recent news about a government policy called the “public charge” rule. Even if you don’t know it by name, you may have heard that the federal government will be making some changes soon that could affect some low-income immigrant families’ access to health care and other public services.

There’s a lot of confusion about the immigration rule changes, so it’s important to make sure that the people you love continue to stay informed about important social programs.

Know your rights, stay safe, and help share resources with your friends and family!

What is “Public Charge”?

 For hundreds of years, our  country’s immigration laws have included something called the public charge test. The test is meant to help identify immigrants who may end up depending on the government as their main source of support. If the federal government determines that a person is likely to become a public charge, they can decide not to let them into the United States, or they can deny their application to be a Lawful Permanent Resident (aka a green card holder).

The public charge test allows immigration officials to consider many factors to help them decide whether someone is a public charge, including their education, employment, age, health status, and family income.

The federal government recently changed the rules so that more types of public benefit programs can be counted against certain immigrants seeking admission to the U.S. or applying for green cards.

The new rules go into effect on February 24, 2020.

Most immigrants are NOT affected

The public charge test DOES NOT apply to you if:

  • You are under the age of 21
  • You are a green card holder who has NOT left the country for over 180 days
  • If you are a U.S. Citizen
  • If you are applying for a DACA renewal (“aka Dreamers”)
  • If you have Temporary Protected Status (TPS) VAWA petitioner, U or T Visa holder, Asylum or Refugee status, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and other immigrants

Green card holders are not subject to the public charge test when they apply for citizenship, but may be subject to a public charge test if they leave the U.S. for more than 180 consecutive days and try to re-enter the U.S. 

Not all programs count as a public benefit under the public charge rule:

 Programs that may be counted*:

  • Non-emergency Medicaid/Medi-Cal if 21 years old or older (with some exceptions)
  • SNAP/EBT/Food Stamps
  • Federal public housing + Section 8
  • Cash assistance like SSI, TANF/CalWORKs, and General Assistance

*These public benefits will only count as a heavily-weighted negative factor if a person use them for more than 12 months in total within any 36-month period before the immigrant’s application for a visa, admission, or adjustment of status.

All other public benefits or programs that are not listed above, do not count under the rule.

Programs that do not count:

  • Emergency Medi-Cal, Medi-Cal for children under 21 years old, Medi-Cal for pregnant women and new mothers
  • State, county, and locally funded health care programs
  • Food and nutrition programs like Women, Infants & Children Program (WIC), school lunches + food banks
  • Shelters
  • Child care assistance
  • School-based Medi-Cal
  • Medicare
  • Public education, including Head Start
  • Pell Grants and student loans
  • Many other programs!

So what does that mean for you? It means that if you are under the age of 21 and use Medi-Cal or Family PACT, your health care won’t be counted against you. This means that you can still access health care, including sexual and reproductive health services, for free!

Teens and children using public programs won’t impact their family’s immigration status

The public charge test also doesn’t count against the benefits used by family members, so you can stay on Medi-Cal without worrying about how that might affect the status of your parents and siblings. And likewise, your family’s use of programs like SNAP and Section 8 Housing won’t be considered in determining your immigration status. But, if you or a family member receives cash benefits and it is your only source of support, the public charge test may affect you. If this applies to you or your family, speak with a trusted immigration attorney ASAP!

When in doubt, contact an immigration attorney

If you and your family need to make important decisions about staying on or signing up for certain programs, be sure to contact a legal professional. Below are resources to help you stay safe and healthy.

Keep your community healthy - share resources!

The public charge rule may be confusing and anxiety-producing for families who depend upon public benefits, or who are hoping to become green card holders. Now that you know YOUR rights, make sure the rest of the folks in your community know theirs’ by sharing where they can get information or legal help if they need it.