Public Charge Ruling: A Primer

Yesterday morning, I was attending a meeting of the South Alameda County Collaborative for Unaccompanied Immigrant Youth and Children of Migrant Families (yes, that’s a mouthful). It was my first meeting back since having a baby, and it also happened to be a meeting in which we heard a presentation on public charge, from one of the staff at the Alameda County Social Services Agency.

In the middle of her presentation about the new Public Charge Rule, one of our collaborative members announced that the Supreme Court had just made a ruling, in a 5–4 vote, that did indeed expand the definition of “public charge,” making it likely that immigrants utilizing certain public benefits could be denied citizenship.

Photo by Michael Kleinfeld/UPI

While the government has historically been able to block immigrants who were likely to become a “public charge” from gaining permanent residency, the term has never formally been defined. It was used primarily to classify immigrants who received cash benefits from the government.

Under the Trump administration and recent rule changes, “public charge” has broadened to include those who receive noncash benefits, including non-emergency Medicaid, supplemental nutrition, Section 8 housing, and federal housing assistance. It has also added factors such as age, financial resources, employment history, credit score, English proficiency, education, and health into determinations about immigration status. These regulations apply to any persons applying to enter the U.S. as well as those applying for permanent residency.

Developments around public charge regulations are ongoing and will continue to be contested in our justice system, yet the new rule has already spread a spirit of fear, confusion, and uncertainty for many immigrants. Many vulnerable individuals are being deterred from receiving government benefits because of shifting public charge regulation, and fears that it could impact their status.

Here are some important notes, especially for those living in Alameda County: (taken from Alameda County’s Public Charge and Immigration Resources page)

  • Public charge does not apply to every immigrant. There are many categories of immigrants that are exempt from the new public charge rule, including: Naturalized U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, special immigrant juvenile status, U-Visa and T-Visa holders, Violence against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitioners, Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary protected status (TPS), and Afghan and Iraqi Special immigrants

In the face of growing fear, panic, and confusion about the impacts of the public charge ruling, I am reflecting on a few important realities:

  1. This ruling reveals the Trump administration’s continued attack on the poor. Despite our country’s longstanding history of being a place of opportunity for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and the reality that many European immigrants who came to this country were poor, these policies clearly penalize immigrants for seeking better opportunities in this country. Under new public charge rules, immigrants whose current income is below 125 percent of federal poverty level would be considered as a public charge. Such policies judge a person by their current wealth level and ignores the economic contributions, labor, and potential that many immigrants provide. Our country’s movement towards allowing immigration only for highly educated, affluent, and comfortable individuals is not only discriminatory, but is a detriment to our country’s future.

“Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves. Remember that you were once foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
(Leviticus 19:33–34)

“God makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; God loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18–19)

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter —
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6–7)

As our current administration continues to build walls and divide people, how can we as people of faith respond? How do we continue to speak out against racist, classist, exclusive, and harmful policies that perpetuate division and disparity?

Though we may be tempted to believe that those of us who are here “legally” somehow earned our citizenship or are deserving of certain privileges, we must remember that as Christians, our allegiance is first to the kingdom of God, not to any political entity or nation, and that our responsibility is first to obey the law of God by advocating for justice, loving the immigrant, and caring for our fellow human family.

Let us pay attention to what’s happening in our country and truly love the foreigner among us.

Let us remember that a person’s worth is not determined by their credit score, income level, or country of origin.

Let us remember that we belong to each other.

For more information on Public Charge, check out the following resources:

Co-Pastor @bethelcommunitysl | Director of Advocacy @fphayward | pastor, activist, writer | married to @eubanksme | co-author of @lentenlament | she/her

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