More than 750K immigrant Arizonans, families spared from ‘public charge’ changes, for now

The Trump administration wants to enforce a requirement that able-bodied, childless recipients on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, have to work or be in a work program to get more than three months of SNAP benefits. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

A new criteria for a public charge test applied to people seeking a U.S. immigrant visa or green card that indirectly affects roughly 755,000 Arizona residents was blocked last week from implementation by courts in three states. 

The new public charge rule, which was finalized in August, was scheduled to take effect Oct. 15. The rule is still valid, but the government can’t implement it because of the pending litigation. 

The rule change was largely seen as a tool to make it much harder for low-income immigrants to come to the U.S. and become permanent residents, an immigration status that is the precursor to naturalization. Proponents saw it as a policy to promote self-sufficiency. 

The rule includes use safety net programs that immigrants are legally allowed to access, like food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies, as negative factors in the government’s assessment of “inadmissibility.”

Arizona Republican Congressmen Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs support the new public charge rule, while Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said he supports a more “balanced approach” that welcomes immigrants from all backgrounds. 

While the concept of public charge has been in the immigration law books since the 1800s, how the government implements this policy hasn’t been updated since the Clinton-era. 

Several Arizona groups have education campaigns regarding the public charge rule change due to confusion that is resulting in chilling effect among immigrant groups not covered by the new policy. 

“We’re now in a wait-and-see mode,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Wildfire, in a statement. “The ruling… gives us more time to ensure that those who may be impacted by the new public charge rules, should it go into effect sometime in the future, understand what it means.”

The most meaningful change in the new rule is in how the government defines “public charge.” In the 1999 guidelines, it meant an immigrant who is primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. The new rule defines it as an immigrant who “is more likely than not at any time in the future to receive one or more designated public benefits for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period.” This means that if someone has received two public benefits in one month, it counts as two months of use.

The new rule also expands which government assistance programs immigration officers will consider in determining an immigrant’s likelihood of becoming a public charge. 

Besides the use of these programs, the government also considers other factors in its assessment such as age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills. This, to immigration attorney Daniel Rodriguez, is the most notable part of the new policy, because it gives immigration officers broad discretion to evaluate whether someone is likely at any time to become a public charge.

He thinks it could empower immigration agents to find more ways to deny individuals a visa or green card. 

“You can still look at the programs, but even if you have not received any of those public benefits, you can still be defined as a public charge, if the immigration agent determines that for other reasons, you’re likely to become a public charge,” Rodirguez said in August when the final rule was announced. “This is not an argument as to, ‘Well why would we want immigrants here that are on public welfare?’ The issue here is that is given a lot of discretion to immigration agents, based on a person’s age, education, history, family — all these different factors — not only to determine if they have been been a public charge, but whether they could be a public charge, which is way different than what we’ve had before.”

What counts in the public charge test?

Previously, receipt of two cash assistance programs are considered by the government in its public charge assessment: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income.

Under the new rule, the following programs will be added to the public charge test:

  • SNAP (food stamps)
  • Medicaid
  • Public housing or Section 8 
  • Rental assistance

Using any of those public benefits constitute a “heavily weighted negative factor” in the new public charge assessment. Other factors in that same category include having no current or recent employment, being younger than 18 or older than 61 and having a medical condition that will interfere with the person’s ability to work or support themselves.

The rule change favors high-income earners since a “heavily weighted positive factor” would be households that earn more than 250 percent of federal poverty guideline — or $62,750 for a family of four in 2018 (slightly more than the median income of $61,372).

Who is and is not covered by the proposed rule?

The new rule applies to:

  • People seeking to enter the U.S.
  • People seeking to become lawful permanent residents
  • Permanent residents who leave the U.S. for more than six consecutive months and seeks to reenter

This rule would not affect groups such as:

  • Permanent residents applying for U.S. citizenship
  • Refugees and asylees
  • Domestic violence, trafficking and other crime victims
  • Individuals applying under the Violence Against Women Act
  • Special immigrant juveniles.

In general, lawful permanent residents can’t be denied U.S. citizenship for lawfully receiving any public benefits that they’re eligible for, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that grants immigration documentation.

For more information and resources on the new public charge rule visit,


  1. It was always a condition for legal immigration that the immigrant was required to have a sponsor that guaranteed support so no application for assistance would occur. If it has been the law for legal immigrants why would illegal immigrant invaders be held to a lower level of accountability?


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