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Biden Administration to Remove 'Public Charge' Immigration Hurdles

FILE - Migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and turned themselves in receive assistance at a respite center, in Del Rio, Texas, June 16, 2021.
FILE - Migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally and turned themselves in receive assistance at a respite center, in Del Rio, Texas, June 16, 2021.

The Biden administration finalized a rule Friday to remove hurdles to immigration to anyone deemed “likely” to become dependent on public benefits while trying to obtain a visa or become a U.S. permanent resident.

The final rule, published Friday, is scheduled to take effect December 23.

“This action ensures fair and humane treatment of legal immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members,” Secretary of U.S. Department Homeland Security (DHS) Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in a statement.

The DHS announcement restores the historical understanding of a “public charge” that had been in place for decades, DHS said.

It means DHS will no longer label a noncitizen as a public charge if they received certain non-cash benefits that were available to them such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or other nutrition programs, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid — except for long-term institutional care — housing benefits, or anything related to immunizations or testing for communicable diseases.

“Consistent with America’s bedrock values, we will not penalize individuals for choosing to access the health benefits and other supplemental government services available to them,” Mayorkas said.

In 2019, the Trump administration broadened the definition of public charge to deem noncitizens who received assistance to pay for food, housing, energy, child care or used Medicaid and other benefits for more than 12 months within any 36-month period as a public charge and possibly deny them admission or permanent residence, also known as a green card.

Within months of taking office, the Biden administration stopped enforcing the guideline established under the Trump administration.

Before the 2019 rule, almost all non-cash government benefits such as Medicaid or nutrition assistance were excluded from public charge consideration.

Researchers from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) said confusion and skepticism over the 2019 change likely kept many immigrants and their U.S.-born relatives from accessing benefits and services for which they were eligible.

“Being labeled a public charge or a potential public charge carries high consequences: Denial of admission for certain immigrants seeking to enter the United States, or for those already in the country, the inability to become lawful permanent residents,” according to MPI.

American Immigration Lawyers Association President Jeremy McKinney wrote in an email Thursday that the “public charge regulation caused such fear among immigrants who sought to legally apply for a green card that many chose to forgo health care and vital economic support.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur M. Jaddou said in a statement Thursday that there is “much to do to overcome confusion and fear” the 2019 change created.

“We will continue to work to break down barriers in the immigration system, restore faith and trust with our immigrant communities, and eliminate excessive burdens in the application process,” she wrote.

Even with rule changes published Friday, a noncitizen can still be denied admission to the United States or lawful permanent residence, if they cannot prove they are self-sufficient, meaning not likely to become primarily dependent on the government for survival.

Researchers at MPI wrote that the best way to stop administrations from “oscillating policy changes” would be for Congress to better define public charge in law, “including enumeration of which benefits and services count towards a person’s likelihood of becoming a public charge.”