‘Public Charge’ proposal would change legal immigration, impacting students and families
Earlier this year, the federal administration proposed a new regulation that would overhaul how the federal government evaluates whether an immigrant is likely to be a ‘public charge.’
What does it mean to be a ‘public charge’?
‘Public charge’ is a term used by United States immigration officials for a person who is considered primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. Currently, an immigrant may be considered a public charge only if they receive public cash benefits for income maintenance (Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or state and local cash assistance programs) or institutionalization for long-term nursing home or mental health institution care at the government’s expense. An immigrant who is found to be likely to become a public charge may be denied admission to the U.S. or lawful permanent resident status (a green card).
What would the new proposed regulation do?
The new proposed rule could prevent a much wider range of immigrants from obtaining a green card by expanding the list of benefits that immigration officials would consider when determining whether an immigrant is a public charge. The expanded list would include, among others, Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/food stamps), and public housing assistance (including Section 8 rent vouchers). The change would impact the process for legal immigration, as undocumented immigrants are already barred from receiving these benefits.
How does this impact California schools?
If the proposed regulation is adopted, immigrant families in California may withdraw from important government benefits out of fear of losing green card eligibility. Although the proposed regulation does not affect school-based programs or benefits used by U.S. citizen children, many immigrants may disenroll children from receiving benefits out of fear generated by the regulations. Further, by including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Children’s Health Insurance Program in the definition of public charge, California’s neediest students would be more likely to attend school hungry and possibly malnourished, without having received adequate health care including immunizations, and without access to critical health services such as eye and dental care, and mental health services. This places these students at a disadvantage in terms of readiness to learn. Further, when students do not receive adequate health care, they are exposing other students to risk of illness. This affects all students’ health and education, immigrants and U.S citizens alike.
CSBA filed comments to the proposed regulation on Dec. 3, 2018, as part of its federal partnership with the Association of California School Administrators. CSBA requested that the administration abandon the proposal to include certain non-cash benefits in the list of public benefits used and maintain the current policy’s focus on cash benefits. CSBA is concerned that the proposed expansion to include non-cash benefits would have a direct and negative impact on the children California’s public schools serve if families choose to forgo important benefits for fear of being determined inadmissible.
How can schools help immigrant families?
There is anecdotal evidence that the proposed expansion criteria is already having a negative impact on enrollment in important programs, as parents choose to withdraw or not enroll their children in various health and nutrition programs out of fear that receiving those benefits will prevent them from becoming permanent residents in the United States.

School districts and county offices of education should note that school-based benefits are not impacted in the proposed rule change. School lunch programs, school-based services, and early childhood programs that serve immigrant students would not count against families, and schools should encourage families who are concerned to keep their children enrolled in school-based programs to ensure students continue to receive necessary services. If the proposed regulation is approved, schools may want to encourage concerned families to speak to an immigration attorney before disenrolling in relevant benefits.