Last week, the United States signalled a major change in its green card policy, by announcing an expansion in the meaning of the term “public charge”. The new rule, slated to become official on October 15 this year, could drastically reduce legal immigration to the US.
The Trump administration, which has tried (unsuccessfully) on multiple occasions in the past to pass immigration laws in the US Congress, reportedly plans to enforce the new rule through executive action.
How US defines ‘public charge’
The present definition, according to the website of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is as follows:
“For purposes of determining inadmissibility, “public charge” means an individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”
The programs falling under the above definition include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance, state and local General Assistance programs and long-term care programs like Medicaid among others.
Programs generally not considered under “public charge” include “non-cash benefits” such as public schools, childcare services, Medicaid (non long-term), public assistance for vaccinations, emergency medical services, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), nutrition programs like Food Stamps, foster care and adoption assistance and job training programs.
Consequences of an immigrant becoming a ‘public charge’
Under the existing policy, USCIS immigration officers can deny a green card on “public charge” grounds if the applicant is “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence”. This discretionary power has to be exercised only after looking into “the totality of the circumstances”, including factors such as age, health, financial status, education, and skills.
Inadmissibility on “public charge” grounds can only take place in green card proceedings, and not in those for citizenship (which in most cases is sought when the applicant already has a green card).
What has the Trump administration changed
The new rule expands the ambit of the term “public charge”, by introducing additional conditions that could preclude an immigrant from obtaining a green card.
Major changes include: more welfare programs being included in the “public charge” list, the taking into consideration of even past use of benefits, and a significant increase in the family and individual income criteria.
Impact of the move
Critics have alleged a racial bias, saying that the move targets immigrants from developing countries, while prioritising more affluent applicants from the global North.
The rule is also criticised for its possible long term impact on the United States, as legal immigrants already residing in the country would now be fearful of availing essential services.
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