YPDA opposes harmful Public Charge rule change, stands with immigrants


The public charge rule change hurts all our futures

From the beginning, the United States has been a place where immigrants have come to make a new life. The proposed rule change sees America’s story differently; as one governed by barriers and fear of newcomers.


The Young Progressives Demanding Action (YPDA) has submitted comments in strong opposition to the proposed change to the Department of Homeland Security’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on inadmissibility on public charge grounds. We urge that the rule be withdrawn in its entirety. You can submit your comment directly through the Protect Immigrant Families portal, here. Comments will be accepted through December 10, 2018, at 5:59 p.m., HST.

YPDA is a community advocacy organization founded by University of Hawaiʻi (UH), Chaminade and Hawaiʻi Pacific University students, and represents more than 1,000 active and engaged community advocates and citizen activists living, attending school and working throughout Hawaiʻi. The majority of our members are under 30, and many are students or alumni within the University of Hawaiʻi system. Many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Below are our unabridged comments on the “Public Charge Rule Change,” a drastic change in federal law that would restrict access to green cards and various types of visas for immigrants who are not economically wealth-off.

The Chilling Effect

This proposed rule would fundamentally change our approach to immigration, making family income and potential use of health care, nutrition or housing programs central considerations in whether or not to offer people an opportunity to make their lives in this country. The proposed rule takes an existing standard and proposes to make it vastly more restrictive.

The direct effect of the proposed rule change would fall primarily on people applying for a green card through a family-based petition, where the determination of public charge is highly relevant. Similar standards would also apply to people seeking to extend or change their temporary non-immigrant status in the United States. The rule change would likely lead to the denial of green cards to hundreds of thousands of otherwise eligible applicants for family-based and employment visas.

If implemented, the proposed rule change is also expected—and perhaps intended—to have a widespread chilling effect on immigration and the use of vital, publicly-funded social services. Even people who already have a green card, or who are exempt from the rule, such as refugees or asylees, may be frightened and confused about the potential consequences of applying for food, health, and housing supports they are eligible to receive. It is this chilling effect that will have the most dire economic and social consequences for the United States, and is therefore the focus of this testimony.

According to calculations by the Fiscal Policy Institute (FPI), an estimated 24 million people in the United States would be affected by the chilling effect of the proposed rule change, including 110,000 Hawaiʻi residents. Not all will face a public charge determination, but all are likely to be nervous about applying for benefits, and some portion will, in fact, dis-enroll from benefit programs.

This estimate of the population who may experience a chilling effect includes anyone in a family that has received any food, health, or housing supports, and where at least one member of the family is a non-citizen. Based on past experience, there is good reason to believe that when there are changes around immigration and public benefits even people who are not directly targeted by this rule will be affected. Indeed, there is already evidence that significant numbers of immigrants are withdrawing from Women, Infants, Children, known as WIC, despite the fact that the program is not included in the proposed rule change, and the rule has not yet been approved or implemented.

The Proposed Rule Change Goes Much Too Far

The proposed rule change uses the public charge designation as a way to unilaterally change immigration policy, without input from Congress, fundamentally redefining how we think about who is an “acceptable” immigrant, and undercutting the very idea of the American Dream.

The pre-existing public charge rule has required immigration officers to evaluate the overall circumstances of immigrants to determine whether they can support themselves in the United States or whether they are likely to rely primarily on the government for support. Under longstanding, bipartisan policy, this has meant showing an applicant will not become primarily dependent on the government—relying, for example, on cash aid from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or General Assistance for their monthly income, or on long-term institutional care.

The proposed rule change aggressively reinterprets this longstanding policy. While continuing to look at the overall circumstances of a family, the proposed rule change would deem immigrants potentially unacceptable if they have received (or are considered likely to receive) even a modest amount of support from any one of a number of non-cash supports: these include, but are not limited to, Medicaid, food stamps (SNAP), housing supports, and subsidies for Medicare Part D to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.

The proposed rule change would also, for the first time, make a specific income threshold a central issue in immigration decisions. Having an income of under $15,000 for a single person or $31,000 for a family of four would be weighed negatively, and could lead to a denial. Indeed, the rule proposes to weigh a range of factors negatively. The only factor weighed as “heavily positive” is if an applicant has an income or resources of over $30,000 for a single person or $63,000 for a family of four.

By way of comparison, the median household income in the United States is $60,000. The rule treats a family income of below 125 percent of the federal poverty level as a negatively weighing factor, and above 250 percent of the poverty level as a positively weighing factor. FPI has translated those percentages into dollar figures for different family sizes using the 2018 poverty level. Household income is an FPI analysis of the 2017 American Community Survey 1-year data. Household income includes individuals of varying size including households of just one person.

As noted, only some non-citizens currently in the United States will actually be affected by the rule change, but with the chilling effect in place, what would it look like if we applied the proposed rule change to all non-citizens justifiably frightened by this anti-immigrant policy proposal?

The effect is extreme: in Hawaiʻi, 35 percent of non-citizens have benefited from health care, food, housing, or cash supports. That should come as no surprise: so have 31 percent of U.S.-born Hawaiʻi residents. The fact is, a large number of Americans—whether or not they are immigrants—make use of federal food, health, and housing programs in any given year to get through hard times and to advance to a better life.

Most of these programs are structured in significant measure as work supports, helping people with relatively low-wage jobs keep healthy, stay in their homes, and put food on the table. Discouraging families from making use of these programs when they need them only makes it harder for them to move up the economic ladder and contribute to their fullest capacity to the American economy.

Further Inhumane Treatment of Kids to Pressure Families

The nation was outraged to find out that the Trump Administration has been using the forced separation of children from their parents as an inhumane tactic of immigration enforcement. As former Attorney General Jeff Sessions put it: “we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”

The redefinition of public charge doubles down on this strategy by inflicting harm on children, whether intentionally or as a side effect of the proposed rule change.

Some children will themselves be subject to the proposed rule change. A far greater number live in families that will likely experience this chilling effect. In Hawaiʻi, 40,000 children under 18 years old live in families with at least one non-citizen family member and that have received one of the benefits specified by the proposed rule change. The large majority—30,000 of the 40,000—are United States citizens. Disturbingly, for those children who do apply for status that requires a public charge designation, the proposed rule change penalizes children by weighing their age negatively. The theory, presumably, is that children do not adequately contribute to the economy.

The proposed rule change also pushes parents to make heart-wrenching decisions for their families. The stakes are unbearably high. As a parent, if you apply for SNAP or Medicaid, you may fear losing the chance to stay in this country with your kids. Yet, not applying may mean seeing your family go hungry or not being able to see a doctor when you are sick.

If the proposed rule change is put into effect, advocates and service providers will need to work strenuously to clarify which individuals may be directly impacted and which may be relatively safe. But confusion and fear will undoubtedly spread well beyond the directly targeted population.

Helping kids in immigrant families do well is not only the right thing to do, it’s also a sound investment in our state and the country’s future. One of the clearest and most striking findings in a major study of the National Academy of Sciences is that the children of immigrants, once grown, become among the strongest contributors to the country’s economy.

An Economic Loss for Hawaiʻi

To look at the economic impact on Hawaiʻi, FPI modeled the impact of two of the biggest supports the proposed rule change would affect: SNAP and Medicaid. FPI provided estimates of the impacts if 15, 25, and 35 percent of people currently receiving benefits who experience the chilling effect feel compelled to disenroll from programs for which they qualify. This range of disenrollment is derived from studies of prior experiences of big policy changes creating a chilling effect for immigrants, such as the welfare reform bill of the 1990s.

FPI’s estimate of disenrollment follows the analysis of “Proposed Changes to ‘Public Charge’ Policies for Immigrants: Implications for Health Coverage,” Kaiser Family Foundation, September 24, 2018. That report cites: Neeraj Kaushal and Robert Kaestner, “Welfare Reform and Health Insurance of Immigrants,” Health Services Research, vol. 40, issue 3, June 2005; Michael Fix and Jeffrey Passel, Trends in Noncitizens’ and Citizens’ Use of Public Benefits Following Welfare Reform 1994-97, The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., March 1, 1999; Namratha R. Kandula, et. al, “The Unintended Impact of Welfare Reform on the Medicaid Enrollment of Eligible Immigrants,” Health Services Research, vol. 39, issue 5, October 2004; and Rachel Benson Gold, Immigrants and Medicaid After Welfare Reform, The Guttmacher Institute, Washington, D.C., May 1, 2003.

The estimated loss in federal funding ranges between $40–93 million, with a potential ripple effect of between $76–178 million in lost economic activity.

If money on this scale is withdrawn from Hawaiʻi’s economy, there would be predictable ripple effects to local businesses and workers. Withdrawal of SNAP funding means a reduction in spending in grocery stores and supermarkets. When families lose health insurance, hospitals and doctors lose income. Uncompensated care funds must also be replenished to make up for losses in emergency care of people without health insurance (this cost is not included in FPI’s analysis of the economic impacts).

Additionally, spending would be reduced in other areas as families struggle to pay food and health costs. FPI’s mid-level estimate shows a potential loss of $127 million due to the ripple effects of this lost spending.

The extent of employment impact depends on the state of the overall economy, with a higher impact during times of high overall unemployment, when these programs serve as both a safety net and an automatic economic stabilizer. Since the proposed rule change would be a permanent measure, there would be periods in the economic cycle the predicted economic impact would be higher and when it would be lower.

Further, when businesses have less revenue, they lay off workers. Translating the job loss implied by an economic loss of this magnitude, based on the number of jobs implied per dollar of gross domestic product, Hawaiʻi stands potentially to lose up to 1,212 jobs as a result of this reduction in federal funding coming to the state. The economic impact would vary depending on where the country is in the business cycle. Because these programs serve as an important economic stabilizer, they create a bigger stimulus during an economic downturn and less in a period of high growth.


From the beginning, the United States has been a place where immigrants have come to make a new life. In this country, many immigrants and U.S.-born workers alike have climbed from the lowest rungs of the economic ladder into the middle class and beyond. It was the opportunities America provided—and often enough the supports they needed to get started or make it through hard times—that allowed them to succeed. This is the story of the American Dream. And it is the story engraved in poetry on the Statue of Liberty.

The proposed rule change sees America’s story differently; as one governed by barriers and fear of newcomers. By suggesting that only immigrants who are already above a certain income threshold are welcome, the proposed rule change shows a disturbing lack of faith in our country and the opportunities it provides.