New Trump Rule Targets Poorer Immigrants Who Use Public Benefits. Here's What To Expect In California

In this Dec. 10, 2015, file photo, pedestrians crossing from Mexico into the United States at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry wait in line in San Diego. The Trump administration's new rules could deny green cards to immigrants if they use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers and other forms of public assistance. (Denis Poroy/AP)

On Monday the Trump administration unveiled its final version of a rule that seeks to disqualify immigrants from permanent legal status if they use certain public benefits.

Ever since a leaked draft of the so-called "public charge rule" first appeared early last year — and especially after a draft rule was published in the Federal Register last fall — immigrant advocates have feared that such a rule could prompt immigrant families to forego public medical programs and other services, even if they aren't affected by it.

Recent data from programs used in California suggests that there has been a chilling effect already, long before the final version appeared. For example, state data shows that tens of thousands of Southern California children who were on CalFresh in January 2018 are no longer enrolled. These children were enrolled as individuals in the program, the vast majority with parents who are ineligible due to immigration status, according to state officials.

The rule becomes official this Wednesday and is expected to take effect Oct. 15.

What exactly does it do, and who is affected? We have some answers.

WHAT DOES THE "PUBLIC CHARGE" RULE DO?

The rule greatly expands the definition of who is considered a "public charge" for immigration purposes, defined as an individual who is likely to become "primarily dependent on the government for subsistence," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

Currently, only the receipt of public cash assistance, or long-term institutionalization at government expense, qualifies an individual as a public charge. The new rule expands these grounds of inadmissibility to include use of several other public benefits. These include health care benefits like Medicaid, known in California as Medi-Cal; food stamps, known as Cal-Fresh in California; and public housing.

The final rule also outlines "negative and positive factors" to be taken into consideration in the government's determination of whether someone is likely to use a public benefit. For example, a negative factor would be if an immigrant is younger than 18 or older than 61. Another negative factor would be income lower than 125 percent of the federal poverty level.

The rule is not supposed to apply retroactively, and people have 60 days before it takes effect to drop out of programs. Also, according to the final rule, refugees, asylees and "other vulnerable populations," such as immigrants on crime victim visas, are not supposed to be affected.

DOES THIS AFFECT ONLY UNAUTHORIZED IMMIGRANTS?

Actually, no. Unauthorized immigrants generally don't qualify for much in the way of public benefits: they can't accept cash assistance programs like Supplemental Security Income, commonly known as welfare; they can't sign themselves up for food benefits like CalFresh.

Under current California law, unauthorized immigrants 19 and over can't use Medi-Cal unless it's for emergencies, pregnancy, or a handful of specific cancers. A new law will expand full-scope Medi-Cal to young unauthorized immigrants up to age 25 starting next year. But according to state officials, the vast majority of people using Medi-Cal are in the U.S. legally.

According to the rule, youths under 21 and pregnant women who use Medicaid benefits would generally be exempted.

Experts believe many of those directly affected by the public charge rule itself will in fact be people who are in the U.S. on some kind of temporary visa and seek to adjust their status to permanent legal resident. However, immigrants with and without legal status have already been indirectly affected in other ways.

WHAT ABOUT MIXED-STATUS FAMILIES?

That's where the indirect impact comes in. While unauthorized immigrants can't themselves sign up for food stamps or public housing, families with mixed immigration status — say, with U.S. citizen children — can access food stamps and public housing assistance on a pro-rated basis if other members of their household who are here legally qualify. Parents who lack legal status may enroll their U.S. citizen children in CalFresh, for example.

Families like these are not directly affected by the public charge rule, experts say. However, there's data indicating that some have been dropping benefits.

For example, between January 2018 and January 2019, "child-only" enrollment in CalFresh declined statewide by more than 85,000 children. Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties alone accounted for a decline of about 45,000 children. According to state officials, the bulk of these children are enrolled solo in the program because their parents are ineligible due to their immigration status.

Among the small pool of immigrants identified as "undocumented" who are eligible for Medi-Cal, enrollment numbers declined by more than 36,000 between January 2018 and December 2018.

State officials say the economy plays a role in public benefits enrollment, and that people tend to drop benefits in a strong economy. But experts who have studied the effects of the public charge discussion believe there's a correlation.

ARE WIC BENEFITS OR LOCAL HEALTH PROGRAMS LIKE "MY HEALTH LA" AFFECTED?

No. Neither the Women, Infants and Children supplemental nutrition program nor My Health LA are subject to the public charge rule. However, enrollment data for both programs suggests there has been a decline in usage.

WHAT'S NEXT? ARE LEGAL CHALLENGES EXPECTED?

Yes. The National Immigration Law Center has announced plans to file suit and seek a preliminary injunction. State attorneys in New York and Connecticut have also said they'll challenge the final rule.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra already joined a multi-state lawsuit related to the public charge draft rule last spring and hinted that there could be further action. In a statement today, Becerra said that "we are ready to take legal action to protect the rights of all Californians."