Government Benefits and Immigration Status

  • August 27, 2019
  • Jami Scott

By now, I am sure many of you have heard that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced a final rule in August 2019 that defines and enforces a long-standing law that immigrants seeking to enter and remain in the United States (temporarily or permanently) must be self-sufficient and not rely on government benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and certain housing programs.

Self-sufficiency is being described as relying on oneself, the resources of other family members, sponsors, and/or private corporations instead of public resources (government benefits). The rule addresses the authority of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to determine whether an immigrant is inadmissible into the United States based on his or her likelihood of becoming a “public charge.” According to the rule, anyone who is a non-citizen and receives certain public benefits above a specific threshold (otherwise known as a “public charge”) could be ineligible for an extension of their visa and/or undergo a change in status, including possible deportation.

In other words, the USCIS is considering penalizing legal immigrants including those who may have been in the country for a long time, by trying to prevent them from getting permanent resident cards (green cards) if they sign up for Medicaid, food stamps or another government benefit. Many immigrant families are avoiding signing up for these benefits altogether in fear of losing their green cards, not receiving extensions on their visas or being deported.

There are exclusions from the government benefits definition, such as: benefits received by people serving in active duty or reserves of the U.S. armed forces, their children and spouses; certain international adoptees and children acquiring U.S. citizenship; Medicaid for non-citizens under 21 and pregnant; Medicaid for school-based services; and Medicaid benefits for emergency medical services. This rule also doesn’t apply to humanitarian-based immigration programs for refugees, those seeking asylum, victims of domestic violence and others.

Within this rule, there is a discretionary authority in which the USCIS can offer a non-citizen who receives benefits over the threshold a “public charge bond,” in which they can obtain their extension or change in status by paying this bond. The actual offering of this bond, and the amount, will be determined by the individual’s situation.

It made me think about the people who are legal permanent residents with green cards, who may have family members living with them that have not established their citizenship or residency yet, and how this could affect their applications for Medicaid. According to the Department of Children and Families, “if a non-citizen does not want the agency to contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to verify their status, the household has the option of withdrawing the application or excluding that individual from the assistance group.” Also, the case worker is not responsible to report this person to USCIS unless the individual requests assistance in obtaining documentation or verifying their immigration status.

Immigrant advocates fear that not only will the rule change limit the opportunity for immigrants to become naturalized citizens, it may force many to make the choice between their health and citizenship. Researchers estimate that 26 million immigrants could drop out of benefit programs rather than risk deportation. According to a recent report, Medicaid and food stamps (SNAP) were the services most commonly avoided by immigrants. With this new rule, more than 8 million children could forego benefits like SNAP or Medicaid. Studies show that children who do not receive proper medical attention or proper nutrition can have a lifetime of negative health issues in their future. It is becoming tougher for families to make the decision on choosing between needed benefits versus permanent residency.

Immigration advocates suggest that there is no reason for immigrants to disenroll from these federal programs yet, especially not before having their eligibility assessed by an immigration expert. This rule is scheduled to go into effect in October. In late August 2019, 13 states had filed a lawsuit against the federal government arguing that the rule unfairly targets poorer immigrants, favoring richer ones. Under federal law, immigrants who have been in the country legally for at least five years can apply for some federal benefits. The suits also argue that the new definition of public charge violates the Immigration and Nationality Act. The government says the final rule relies on current law and previous executive orders.

So, it looks like we’ll have to see how this all sorts itself out… to be continued in a future issue.

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Ellen S. Morris
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Howard S. Krooks
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10.0Howard S. Krooks
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