The Corner


Don’t Exaggerate the Effects on Immigrant Admissions of Tightening the Public-Charge Rule

Asylum seekers wait on the Mexican side of the Brownsville-Matamoros International Bridge after being denied entry by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers near Brownsville, Texas, July 25, 2018. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a think tank devoted to the study of immigration policy in the U.S. and elsewhere, has been publishing a great deal of work on the prospect of a Trump-era revision to the “public-charge” rule, which was last overhauled in 1999. Among other things, their work has demonstrated just how much recent immigrants to the U.S. depend on safety-net benefits, which is very much to their credit, as these are facts that many other immigration advocates tend to ignore or obscure. So it was with great interest that I read a new report from MPI on how a revised public-charge rule might change the composition of immigrant inflows to the U.S. My concern, however, is that this new report might create a misleading impression, as it overlooks important aspects of how green cards are issued.

MPI warns that if a new standard for public-charge determinations is put in place, in which new immigrants are expected to be able to provide for themselves and their families without relying on means-tested benefits and refundable tax credits, “family-based immigration, which has been in the administration’s crosshairs, would be most affected, with significant regional, national, and racial effects on future flows.” Understood broadly, this is clearly correct. Family based immigration is the chief path through which low-income migrants to the U.S. are granted green cards. And it is certainly possible that under a revised public-charge standard, migrants from some countries will be more likely to gain admission than from others. But by raising the specter of “racial effects,” I fear MPI is getting too far ahead of its skis.

To review, under U.S. immigration law, there is a longstanding principle that ordinary applicants for green cards, that is, applicants who are neither refugees or asylees, must demonstrate that they aren’t likely to become public charges. Just to be clear, refugees and aslyees are exempt from the public-charge rule. This is important. This rule does not apply to those who are admitted to the country on humanitarian grounds.

Under the current Clinton-era rule, public-charge status is defined very narrowly. Receiving a non-cash benefit, such as SNAP, Medicaid, WIC, housing benefits, or child-care subsidies, can’t be considered under the 1999 rule. The refundable portions of the earned-income tax credit and the child tax credit don’t count, even if they’re the only thing keeping you out of dire poverty. Cash benefits devoted to income maintenance might count, but not cash benefits designed to help you heat your home. One thing that does count is if the government has reason to believe you will be institutionalized for the rest of your life. Short of that, though, applicants for green cards have had good reason to believe that having extremely bleak earnings prospects in the U.S. wouldn’t count against them.

Is the current public-charge rule too lax? I believe so, and I’ve made that case elsewhere. (That said, I draw a bright line between applying the rule to future admissions, which I think makes sense, and to green-card holders who already reside in the country, which strikes me as a serious mistake.)

But let’s leave that aside for the moment to focus on a different question: What would happen if the U.S. were to adopt a more stringent standard for non-humanitarian immigrants? To simplify matters, MPI uses being above or below 250 percent of the federal poverty line (roughly $62,000 for a family of four) as a proxy for who’d clear the threshold under the Trump administration’s proposed public-charge rule.

While there are no available data about the income levels of individuals seeking admission or green cards, data exist on the incomes of immigrants admitted legally in the past five years. Our analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data makes clear that a large share of this proxy population would fall short of the 250 percent threshold. We estimate that 2.3 million of the 4 million legally present noncitizens who arrived during the past five years (56 percent) do not have incomes sufficient to meet the 250 percent standard. In fact, 40 percent of U.S.-born persons would be unable to meet that threshold.

The introduction of this 250 percent standard would have pronounced regional, national-origin and—by extension—racial effects on flows. Our analysis finds that among recently arrived legally present noncitizens 71 percent of Mexicans and Central Americans, 69 percent of Africans, and 52 percent of Asian immigrants would fail to meet the threshold (see Figure 1).

Because the share of all U.S. immigrants coming from Asia has risen in recent years, Asians would end up being the most disadvantaged group numerically under the expected Trump proposal, with more than 1 million recent legal noncitizens living in families with incomes under 250 percent of poverty (see Table 1). By contrast, 64 percent of recent Canadian and European legal noncitizens had incomes over the 250 percent threshold. The only two Asian countries whose nationals outperformed Europeans in this regard are India and Japan, with 75 percent of Indians and 69 percent of Japanese having family incomes at or above 250 percent poverty.

I see a few potential problems with MPI’s approach:

First, humanitarian immigrants are not subject to public-charge determinations. One thing we need to keep in mind is that a high proportion of recent African immigrants are refugees. Going forward, it is likely that a high proportion of new, lawfully present Central-American non-citizens will be asylees. The most salient policy issues here are the Trump administration’s decision to lower the refugee ceiling and how we as a country choose to address the Central-American migrant crisis, not how we define public-charge status. Granted, the family members of these non-citizens would be subject to the public-charge rule, but family preference visas for non-citizens are extremely hard to come by and naturalization rates for low-income non-citizens are quite low, in part because many are so desperately poor that they can’t afford the fees, even though the value of citizenship (even if we understand it in the most crassly material terms) is quite high. So it’s not entirely clear how this would shake out.

Second, there is a very long wait list for family sponsored green cards. If large numbers of petitioners are deemed inadmissible on the grounds that they couldn’t clear a more stringent public-charge standard, there is good reason to believe that other petitioners who can meet the standard would take their place. The following is drawn from a recent report from the Congressional Research Service:

At the start of FY2018, approximately 4.1 million approved LPR visa petitions — almost all family-sponsored petitions — were pending with the Department of State’s National Visa Center because of the numerical limits in the INA. Approximate wait times for numerically limited family and employment preference visas range widely depending on the specific preference category and country of origin. Prospective family-sponsored immigrants from China, Mexico, India and the Philippines have the most substantial wait times before a visa is scheduled to become available to them.

Given high global demand for green cards, and existing numerical limits for family preference visas, it is easy to imagine that Asians (whom MPI expects will be the most disadvantaged group numerically under the new rules) deemed inadmissible will make way for Asians who clear the threshold. In the extremely unlikely event there aren’t enough family sponsored immigrants who clear the new higher hurdle, unused visas roll over to the employment-based categories, which themselves have extremely long wait lists. And if enthusiasts for increasing high-skill immigration are right, there is no shortage of potential applicants for employment-based visas who could comfortably clear a more stringent public-charge standard.

Third, it is important not to conflate national origin and “race.” MPI notes that “64 percent of recent Canadian and European legal noncitizens had incomes over the 250 percent threshold.” The implication is that these white immigrants are much likelier to clear the threshold than brown immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Let’s not forget, though, that Canada and Europe aren’t exclusively white — far from it. In 2017, one-fifth of all Canadians belonged to visible minority groups, a majority of whom are of Asian origin. “Double migration,” in which international migrants move from one country to another (e.g., from Jamaica to Britain) and then do it again later in life (from Britain to the U.S.) is increasingly common, and one must tread lightly before assuming that all immigrants from Canada and Europe are necessarily white, as people who’ve already migrated once in their life often have a higher propensity to do it again.

Double migration is especially common in Europe: Many migrants will stop in a non-English-speaking country as a way station to ultimately settling in Britain, which is seen by many as a more desirable destination thanks in part to the diversity of London and southeastern England. Immigration isn’t just about whom we let in. It is also about who wants to apply for admission. Ambitious Europeans of recent immigrant origin might be more inclined to leave hidebound societies where they face discrimination than Europeans with deep roots in their country of origin.

Moreover, it is worth noting that Canadian and European legally present non-citizens are somewhat less likely to be family sponsored immigrants and somewhat more likely to have been admitted as employment-based immigrants, which partly accounts for their higher incomes. Under a revised public-charge standard, employment-based immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa might increase, and so the income profiles of legally present non-citizens from these regions would change. What MPI is telling us is that some of the legally present non-citizens we’ve been admitting in the recent past might have been disadvantaged under the new rules. It’s not at all clear that the influx admitted under a new standard would lead to drastic decreases in the number of non-Europeans. Instead, the composition might change in other ways, e.g., more legally present Latin American non-citizens might come from South America, etc.

There is much more to say about MPI’s report, which is very thought-provoking. For now, though, I’ll just say that I fear that there are journalists out there who will translate this report into breathless clickbait. Believe it or not, there are millions of potential migrants from outside Europe and Canada who are capable of supporting themselves without relying on safety-net benefits and refundable tax credits, and many of them are already on the wait list for green cards.


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