The Biden administration will enact new rules in December governing applications for U.S. residency, departing from stringent Trump-era requirements that made it harder for low-income immigrants to become permanent residents, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced Thursday.
A final DHS regulation that will go into effect on December 23 will codify standards in place since the Clinton administration that govern when immigrants can be considered a “public charge,” or an economic burden on the United States. Such a decision would bar them from obtaining permanent residency, also known as a green card.
Under the rule, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will only consider green card applicants a public charge if “they are likely at any time to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.”
If they require long-term government-funded institutionalization or public cash-benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, this could be the case.
The Biden administration’s rules are a stark contrast to a Trump administration regulation that significantly expanded the number and types of government benefits that could jeopardize an immigrant’s application to become a permanent resident.
The Trump-era rule, which went into effect in 2020 after the Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings declaring the policy unconstitutional, included the use of housing vouchers, food stamps, and Medicaid in public charge determinations. The regulation also established a new test to determine whether applicants were likely to rely on these benefits in the future, taking into account their income, age, medical conditions, skills, and family size.
According to the Trump administration, the rule promotes immigrant self-sufficiency. However, immigrant advocates slammed the policy as a draconian wealth test, citing the “chilling effect” it had on immigrant families, including those with U.S. citizen children, who were afraid of accessing benefits they were eligible for.
Within two months of President Biden’s inauguration, his administration ceased defending the 2019 public charge rule against lawsuits, allowing a federal court ruling to invalidate the policy, which Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described as “unconstitutional” and “unbecoming of our nation’s values.”
The Biden administration released a draft version of its own public charge regulation in February, which received over 10,000 public comments. The administration stated on Thursday that its regulation was intended to reduce the “chilling effect” that the Trump administration’s rule had on mixed-status immigrant households.
Mayorkas said in a statement Thursday, “This action ensures fair and humane treatment of legal immigrants and their U.S. citizen family members.” “In keeping with America’s founding principles, we will not penalize individuals who choose to use the health benefits and other supplemental government services that are available to them.”
Every year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants apply for permanent residency in the United States, the majority of whom are sponsored by family members with US citizenship or employers. Those who have been granted refugee or asylum status may also apply for green cards, though the public charge rules do not apply to them.
According to government data, USCIS received approximately 648,000 green card applications in the fiscal year 2021. During the first half of the fiscal year 2022, the agency received 280,000 new green card applications.
When the federal government began regulating immigration, particularly from non-European countries, the public charge test was first codified into US law in the late nineteenth century. During the same time period, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited most Chinese immigration for decades.
The 2019 public charge rule was part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration. Former President Donald Trump reduced refugee admissions to record lows, attempted to bar immigrants who could not afford health care, and imposed a partial immigration ban during the pandemic.
The Biden administration has reversed Trump’s immigration restrictions and significantly increased refugee admissions. However, it has struggled to rebuild the devastated refugee resettlement infrastructure and reform a legal immigration system beset by bureaucratic delays, reliance on paper records, and a growing backlog of unresolved cases.