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Capitol Correspondence - 09.01.20

Confusion over Public Charge Rules Affects Pandemic Response

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ANCOR has been following the broad policy debate surrounding the public charge rule, which would prevent immigrants from being eligible for residency or citizenship if they received public supports, because of our concern that it would affect immigrants with disabilities and their families. As reported by Politico Pro:

“A Trump administration rule enacted to discourage immigrants from applying for benefits has left millions without a safety net during the months-long pandemic and economic downturn.

Recent updates from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services state any testing, care or prevention for Covid-19 is exempt from the so-called public charge rule. But advocates argue a lack of consistent communication and clarity from the department has left millions of immigrants even more fearful about which government aid they can use without decreasing chances of being able to get a green card.

‘What we are left with is individuals in the community not knowing whether it is safe for them and their families to access the care and services they need’  said Erin Quinn, senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Quinn added that it has been difficult for groups and individuals to keep track of the legal battles and impact of the rule.

On Aug. 21, USCIS updated its website after nearly a week of silence. It now says any treatment, testing or vaccines for Covid-19 would not negatively affect migrants as a part of a future public charge check. The update also says USCIS will take into consideration the use of public assistance due to Covid-19-related closures with proper justification when going over an immigrant’s application.

The final public charge rule was announced in August 2019 to amend Department of Homeland Security regulations for prescribing how the department will determine whether a person seeking entry, green card or visa status should be rejected based on their likelihood of becoming a public charge at any time in the future. To be a “public charge” means to be likely to become dependent on government assistance, implying a burden on taxpayers. The rule was implemented nationwide in February, just weeks before the pandemic crisis became widespread.

A nationwide injunction issued on July 29 by U.S. District Judge George Daniels would have stopped DHS from enforcing, applying and implementing the public charge rule during the declared national health emergency in response to Covid-19. DHS confirmed in a press release it would not apply the public benefit condition for applications filed on or after July 29.

However, two weeks later, the judge’s decision was overturned by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and as a result, the injunction was suddenly limited to Connecticut, New York and Vermont.

DHS and USCIS have not issued new guidance to clarify if the public charge rule will resume for the rest of the country. Even without the injunctions, advocates say there was still confusion over accessing public benefits due to circumstances caused by the pandemic.

[…]

Although Washington’s Latino and Hispanic residents make up only 13 percent of the state’s population, they account for 43 percent of the state’s Covid-19 cases where the ethnicity is known.

[…]

Various other federal regulations within the rule are also adding to the complexity.

The rule doesn’t apply to those who already have green cards or those filing citizenship applications, said Randy Capps, director of U.S. research at the Migration Policy Institute. Refugees, those granted asylum, victims of violence and others are also exempt. Even with the rule, most undocumented migrants do not qualify for public benefits singled out by DHS.

According to DHS, the rule further defines the term “public benefit” to include any cash benefits for income maintenance, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, most forms of Medicaid and certain housing programs. All these forms of aid have been widely resourced by the general population during the pandemic.

Some benefits — including free and reduced lunch programs, CHIP, WIC and emergency medical assistance — are already exempt from the rule.”