One Year After Improved Public Charge Rule, Biden Administration Must Do More for Immigrant Families

By Juliana Zhou

Note: This blog was updated on December 21, 2023

The Biden Administration’s public charge rule went into effect a year ago, on December 23, 2022. The rule was a major immigrants’ rights win, which clarified that only receiving (not just applying for) a benefit that falls under the following two categories could negatively affect an immigrant’s public charge determination:

  1. public cash assistance for income maintenance
    • Supplemental Security Income (SSI),
    • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and
    • state and local cash assistance programs that provide benefits for income maintenance (often called “General Assistance” programs)
  2. long-term institutionalization at government expense.

The updated public charge rule came after the Trump Administration tried to implement major, confusing changes to the public charge rule that would have made immigrants receiving a wide swath of public benefit programs ineligible for a green card. While that attempt failed and the Trump public charge rule was never implemented, it created a widespread chilling effect that prevented millions of immigrant families from accessing critically needed public benefits, even during the COVID-19 public health emergency. Advocates and community-based organizations have tried their best since then to communicate that public charge fears should not prevent immigrant families in need from receiving the help they deserve.

But one year later, it is clear that immigrants are still afraid to access the safety net programs for which they are eligible. Ongoing anti-immigrant policies and Congressional attempts to threaten the Biden public charge rule only serve to reinforce this uncertainty. A recent KFF-Los Angeles Times survey of immigrant adults found that about 83 percent of all immigrants are either unsure whether using public assistance can affect their ability to get a green card or falsely believe that it can. Hard-won federal regulations that improve immigrant access to safety net programs will have little impact without a committed federal campaign to convey that message to immigrant communities. Although the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services put together public charge infographics translated into 13 languages, these documents are difficult to access and primarily serve to explain the goals of the regulatory change. They do not explain the rule itself or dispel the misconceptions and fears commonly associated with the public charge rule.

The Biden Administration must be more vocal in its outreach to the immigrant community. As Adriana Cadena, the director of the Protecting Immigrant Families (PIF) coalition, noted, “The administration knows how to do better – during the pandemic, they partnered with nonprofits to lower barriers to COVID-19 testing and vaccination in immigrant communities. To reach its own equity goals, the Biden Administration must commit real resources to outreach to immigrant families.” In addition to partnering with trusted immigrant-serving, community-based organizations, we also recommend that the Biden Administration adopt a robust approach that includes:

  • Making community outreach grants available to social service organizations with expertise in serving immigrant communities;
  • Working with immigration and public benefits policy experts to develop infographics that provide clear and concise information;
  • Partnering with community-based organizations to test plain-language translations with the target populations; and
  • Providing guidance to federal and state agencies that administer public benefit programs about specific language to use in public-facing forms and materials that clarify the current public charge policy.

Immigrants make up one-sixth of the U.S. adult population, and children of immigrants are one-quarter of all children here. The lived experience of many is characterized by fear, uncertainty, and discrimination. Immigrants deserve better from policymakers and the Biden Administration than to be forced to interpret complicated federal regulations on their own.