Changes to Social Security / Government Benefits for Immigrants

In United States immigration law, there is a notion of a “public charge”. A public charge is presently defined as a person who depends on government assistance for survival. If classified as a public charge, a given person can be denied entry into the US or barred from applying for permanent residence. Until recently, immigration agencies have narrowly interpreted “public charge” as those receiving cash relief and long-term institutionalization rather than those receiving general medical benefits, meals, and food stamps.

On January 4, 2018, the State Department began to amend this longstanding definition more broadly defining public charge.  In February, the Trump Administration proposed amendments to the legal definition of public charges. A new bill looks to broaden the scope of what is considered to be “public charge”.  All the health and education aid received for children, US- or foreign-born, can now potentially be treated as government aid. Because of this, immigrant families are anxious about the benefits they receive or have received in the past – will this prevent immigrants from attaining permanent status?

The proposed amendment may be finalized by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by July 2018.

If this bill is passed, almost all social security benefits (Medicaid, CHIP, SNAP, WIC, traffic vouchers, heating support programs, Head Start, Obama Care Grants, etc.) may become categorized as government relief and may become cause for immigration prohibition or immigration application rejection. Currently, the proposal would not categorize unemployment benefits and emergency/disaster assistance as government aid.

Many wonder if government aids they received in the past can be considered a public charge.  The proposal in its current state does not cover benefits one received before the law becomes enacted.  As well, if a permanent resident received similar benefits, it does not affect their eligibility for naturalization.

As we emphasize the importance of ‘legitimate immigration’, we must recognize that while many foreigners in the United States do their best to maintain legal status, the process of reaching legal permanent residence is an extremely lengthy process (up to a decade). Also, among those who once had legal status but lost it for some minor infraction are placed in queues with those who never had legal status to begin with, making changes to the law overly onerous for those who have made great effort to abide by US immigration laws.

Statistics show that immigrants have lower unemployment, lower incomes, and receive less government relief than US-born nationals. It is widely believed that the definition of government relief as it is now, clearly and narrowly interpreted as cash relief and long-term institutionalization, benefits the American public and society in a productive way that does not warrant dismantling.