What you need to know about the ‘public charge’ rule

UPDATE Jan. 8, 2020: In October, five federal courts blocked implementation of the public charge rule, which was set to go into effect on Oct. 15, 2019. Three of the injunctions applied nationwide. Since then, appeals courts have lifted two of those injunctions; today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York, refused to stay the third injunction; however, the court will still hear arguments on the merits of the injunction itself, likely in mid-late February.

In the meantime, and until further notice, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will continue to apply the previous, much-narrower definition of “public charge.” Anyone applying for a green card within the U.S. can still do so without being affected by the new rule. However, the State Department is already applying a similar standard to applications filed abroad, and is updating its guidance to match the DHS criteria. We will continue to update this page as lawsuits move through the courts and policies evolve; see also the Protecting Immigrant Families website. 

Emma Lazarus’ poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty invites the world to “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” For centuries, people have come with little or nothing, and built new lives and new fortunes here. It’s the American Dream.

But now the Trump administration wants to slam the door on working-class immigrants by subjecting anyone who earns less than 250% of the federal poverty line ($64,375 for a family of 4) to intense scrutiny, and effectively excluding anyone below 125% of FPL ($32,188 for a family of 4).

Immigrants applying for a green card or visa could be deemed to be a “public charge” – someone who depends on the government – and turned away if they earn below 250% of FPL and use any of a wide range of public programs for working families, or are deemed to be likely to use them in the future due to their income, age, health status, credit score and other factors. 

Key resources

MIRA materials:
What is ‘public charge’ and why is the rule change so dangerous? (with table of who/what is covered)
Key thresholds for ‘public charge’: 125% and 250% of FPL 
Who does ‘public charge’ apply to? 5 sample scenarios

• PIF-MA webinar for service providers (Oct. 30, 2019)

Public charge: Getting the help you need (national PIF campaign, updated Oct. 2019)

Migration Policy Institute data on Mass. children with immigrant parents:
Children in U.S. immigrant families (pick Mass. in menu)
English learners in Massachusetts (incl. data on families and poverty)

Manatt: Data tables on Mass. residents by income & status

Mass. school district data profiles (see selected populations tab)

U.S. Census data for Mass. (or select city/town)

Blue Cross Blue Shield study on Mass. impact

Boston impact analysis

National Protecting Immigrant Families campaign resources

Courts have stopped this policy in its tracks. Multiple lawsuits have been filed challenging the rule change, and federal judges have blocked its implementation so far. Given the enormous chilling effect this policy has already had, however, advocates and service providers need to do all we can to ensure that immigrants do not needlessly drop cash, health, nutrition and housing benefits that are important to the well-being of their families.

An assault on core American values

America prides itself on being a land of opportunity. For generations, immigrants and refugees – including some of America’s biggest success stories – have come to the U.S. with little or nothing and built their fortunes here. Assuming that anyone who can’t pass these tests is bound to become a burden on society is pure bigotry, not based on actual evidence.

This is why 266,000 people submitted comments about the planned rule change, overwhelmingly opposing it: immigrants, community advocates, service providers, business owners, elected officials and concerned citizens. They shared their families’ own immigration stories, explained how “safety net” programs had gotten them through difficult times in their own lives, and argued vigorously for a more compassionate and welcoming America. 

The income expectations are absurdly high. The median household income in the U.S. is only $61,372 – so only immigrants with incomes higher than half of U.S. households can avoid close scrutiny as potential “public charges.” In Massachusetts, 30% of the population is below 250% of the FPL, and 15% is below 125% of the FPL. (Among immigrant families, it’s 50% and 27%, respectively.) Notably, two adults working 40 hours per week each at $15 per hour would jointly earn only $62,400. 

In response to public comments, the Trump administration made small adjustments to the rule – most notably, removing Medicare Part D subsidies for seniors and Medicaid for pregnant women and anyone under 21 from the list of benefits to be considered. But the new rule still represents a fundamental change in how the U.S. decides who is welcome here, with a disproportionate impact on immigrants of color. The change could decimate family-based migration and shut out many immigrants simply for being working-class. A related policy has already done significant harm.

How do I know if I’d be affected by the new rule?

Public charge is only an issue when a person first applies for their green card through a family petition or for a non-immigrant visa such as a student or fiancé visa. It is not a consideration when you apply for citizenship or to renew your green card. 

The public charge test would not apply to people renewing their DACA or applying for or re-registering for Temporary Protected Status (TPS); Special Immigrant Juveniles; or anyone applying for a green card through asylee or refugee status, VAWA self-petitions, U or T visas, Amerasian petitions; Afghan or Iraqi Special Immigrant petitions; Cuban and Haitian Entrant petitions; NACARA petitions; or the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, 

However, even if the public charge test would not apply to you, it could impact your ability to petition for a family member in the future.

If you are looking to apply for a green card for the first time for yourself or a family member, we recommend that you consult an attorney. If you are in the Boston area, there are free immigration clinics every first and third Wednesday of the month, noon to 2pm, at Boston City Hall, Room 806. You can also receive free legal advice from the Irish International Immigrant Center at one of their clinics. If you are outside the Boston area, see our list of legal service providers.

Email Jessica Chicco at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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