The Public Charge Rule Keeps America Great


September 12, 2019

By Dale L. Wilcox

Immigration law must serve society’s best interests. That is why the public charge rule is good law. And that is also why President Trump’s enforcement of the public charge rule is good policy.

The public charge rule states that an alien shall not be admitted into the United States if it appears he or she will become dependent on public welfare programs.

This is one of the simplest laws of immigration, protecting our country for hundreds of years. Even the first American settlers relied upon it for their survival. They suffered cold, starvation, and violence. Everybody needed to be a productive member for society to survive, let alone thrive. So, as far back as the 1600s, American colonies excluded “vagabonds, paupers, toss-pots and other idle ne’er-do-wells.”

Consistently since then, immigration law requires aliens to prove they will strengthen American society, not burden it. Since the 1800s, America excluded “any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In 1996, President Clinton signed laws “to assure that aliens be self-reliant in accordance with national immigration policy.” Today, federal law requires that aliens “not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities and the resources of their families, their sponsors, and private organizations.” Thanks to the public charge rule, generations of immigrants helped build America into the economic superpower that we enjoy in 2019.

President Obama memorably defended the public charge rule before a joint session of Congress. He promised the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) would not cover “illegal immigrants.” The president was accused of lying—illegal aliens have indeed taken advantage of Obamacare programs—but nonetheless President Obama’s words paid tribute to the virtue of the public charge rule.

Now, under President Trump, America is wealthier than ever. Accordingly, our federal and state governments spend more money on public welfare and benefit programs than on every other spending category combined. The days of shivering, starving, and fearful settlers are long gone. But the math is unchanged: each new immigrant must contribute to this system, not debit from it.

In any case, American welfare programs already cover millions of immigrants. More than 22 million American citizens are immigrants from foreign countries. Each of them, only after becoming a U.S. citizen, has earned the right to participate in welfare programs. The public charge rule does not in any way encumber immigrants who waited in line and earned their citizenship.

But President Trump is not terminating welfare benefits exploited by aliens, either. Rightly or not, millions of noncitizens—including illegal aliens—will continue to take advantage of these programs.

Instead, President Trump’s policy under the public charge rule affects aliens seeking new “status”—those aliens applying for more time to remain in the United States. To get a new status, aliens must now show they have not been drawing from specific welfare programs for more than 12 months total within a three-year window. Twelve months in three years. That’s it.

However, some Americans believe the public charge rule should be even more charitable. So President Trump’s new policy also contains generous exceptions.

First, welfare-dependent aliens are exempt from this new policy during a prolonged grace period. The policy was first proposed one year ago. The policy has since been finalized, but still does not take effect until October 15, 2019. Until then, welfare-dependent aliens can keep applying for new status without regard to the 12-months-in-three-years policy.

Second, most categories of welfare do not count under the new policy. The new policy only counts the following taxpayer-funded, means-tested welfare programs: cash payments; SNAP food stamps; most of Medicaid; and certain subsidized housing programs.

Third, many aliens are completely exempt from the new 12-in-three policy. These include: aliens in military families; alien adoptees; asylum aliens; refugees; victims of human trafficking and other crimes; and aliens receiving Medicaid benefits if they are: under 21 years of age, or pregnant, or with newborns, or receiving emergency treatments or special education services.

Fourth, the new 12-in-three policy does not affect aliens’ use of private charity—which provides food, hygiene, housing, health care, education, and nearly all other goods and services. And the new policy also ignores taxpayer-funded programs like public schools, legal aid, shelters, food banks, and non-Medicaid health care. Yet these benefits are not cheap. Just public education for aliens and their children by itself costs taxpayers $59.8 billion per year—let alone the sum total cost of all other myriad taxpayer and donor-funded benefits exempt from the new policy.

The public charge rule is commonsense immigration law. We wisely welcome aliens that strengthen America while repelling aliens that weaken it. President Trump’s new policy under the public charge rule builds upon a successful bipartisan logic, and the enforcement of this rule helps keep America great.

Dale Wilcox is executive director and general counsel at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of illegal migration.

Also published at: Dale L. Wilcox, The Public Charge Rule Keeps America Great, The Hill, September 12, 2019.

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