Sanctuary State Politics: Prospects of "Public Charge" Reform By Nicky Riordan
The California State Legislature passed various protections for immigrants in late 2017 making California the first "sanctuary state." Stark internal division within the state and the political parties on immigration is nothing new. The current political climate under the Trump Administration and Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, paired with high-stakes midterm elections later this year, have brought new life to the conversation. This series will analyze nuanced dynamics of immigration policy and ideology across California during the 2018 midterm campaign.
Although immigration reforms have been a major goal for the Trump Administration from day one, Congress has been unable to take tangible action and address Trump’s concerns; but recent leaks of out the federal government signal potential moves to sidestep Congress and solidify the base going into the midterm elections through changes to “public charge.” Suggested changes to "public charge" have been floated since the election, stoking fears among immigrant communities and bolstering support for the Administration, but nothing tangible has happened. That may be about to change, and progressive states like California are taking note.
According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, public charge is used to determine admissibility of immigrants based on a number of factors deemed to forecast whether they are “likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.” Under the proposed changes, these factors would expand significantly, having a major impact on immigrant communities as a whole, as well as an oversized impact on California.
The concept of public charge is nothing new, appearing in immigration law dating back to the 1880’s, but it has never been used as widely as the Administration is proposing today. Welfare reform legislation passed in the 90’s dictates current rules around benefit eligibility and public charge, but the proposed changes to its application would include: the use of benefits by natural-born children of immigrants and potentially by legally present non-citizens, and would expand the assistance programs that can be considered, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that such changes could amount to a 44 percent increase in the number of public charge determinations of noncitizens who use benefits nationwide. Impacts of this scale would drastically change the face of American immigration as these rules will adversely affect family-based immigration cases and immigrants without predetermined job offers or high-wage skills.
This proposed change and strategy reflect President Trump’s view of immigration as a whole, and the problems he perceives within the current system. Trump has repeatedly referred to his desire for a “merit-based” system and even decried US policy of admitting people from “shithole countries”. His campaign was built on a foundation of isolationism, and he has often used immigration policy as an opportunity to rile his supporters.
Changes to public charge have been floated since the Trump Administration took office, but have not materialized in a tangible way. The resurfacing of this concept months before the midterms appears to be another effort to galvanize conservative support for candidates who will hold a hard line on immigration policies in Congress. An April Quinnipiac poll highlighted the fact that 65 percent of Republican respondents believe that undocumented immigrants take jobs from Americans, as did 51 percent of whites without a college education.
Contrast this with a 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which found that first-generation immigrants are more costly to the government, but “subsequent generations are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population”.
California leaders recognize the challenge changes to public charge determinations would bring to the state - home to one-quarter of the 43.2 million foreign-born residents in the country - and they are pushing back. Representatives from the Attorney General’s and Governor’s offices met with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials earlier this summer to outline economic and social impacts of such changes, and it is clear why this issue resonates when you look at the strides the state has made to help immigrants access services.
California currently allows immigrants access to many state programs that fill gaps in service and makes a significant effort to educate communities about their rights to apply for benefits such as food stamps and Medi-Cal for their natural-born children, and the state far outweighs other states in the number of immigrants in families receiving public services. Under the proposed changes, utilization of these benefits may impact their ability to become legal citizens or open them up to deportation proceedings.
Applications for these benefits have already fallen off since Trump took office, and local officials see this as a detriment to the long-term health and self-sufficiency of immigrants in the state. The San Francisco Mayor also wrote to OMB this summer to oppose the changes as they will do “irreparable harm” in regard to economic productivity and health and safety, and pointed out that they could cost the city between $129 and $368 million in lost spending from food stamps, Medi-Cal, EITC, and other benefits, as these programs often serve as bolsters to local economies. At a time when California legislators feel emboldened to consider a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to serve on public boards and commissions, this is likely to be a risky proposal for California Republicans.
No local politicians have weighed in specifically on public charge rumors and leaks, but California immigrants rights activists, legal centers, and other nonprofits and foundations have come down hard on the proposed changes and their intended effects. If the Administration is forced to place the rule change into a public comment period, it is likely that the debate will pick up steam and force candidates to address the issue. Analysts believe the Administration is trying to avoid this process by fast-tracking the measure and downplaying the changes and the fiscal impact, but it remains to be seen how the rollout will take place and whether it will become an election issue going into November.
Nicky Riordan (@nriordan120), Political Analyst, The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, reporting from California