Congress can render the new ‘public charge’ rule moot

Many in Congress — particularly the incoming Democratic House majority — are outraged by the Trump administration’s proposed rule change that would more accurately define what it means to be a “public charge.” There’s an easy fix for that. Congress can reform our immigration policies so as to limit the admission of people who are likely to rely heavily on public welfare programs.

Currently, nearly two-thirds of all U.S. households headed by non-citizens depend on at least one public welfare program to meet their families’ basic needs. According to an analysis of Census Bureau data, 63 percent of immigrant-headed households use public assistance, compared with 35 percent of households headed by a native-born American. Moreover, the longer immigrants reside in the United States and gain eligibility to more welfare programs, usage increases. Seventy percent of immigrants who have lived here for 10 years or longer rely on the social safety net.


The informal prohibition against the admission of public charges predates the founding of the republic, and has formally existed in our laws since 1882. As recently as 1996, Congress reaffirmed that the compact between immigrants and the American people included a commitment on the part of immigrants to be self-reliant.

In enacting the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (aka, welfare reform), Congress explicitly asserted “a compelling government interest to enact new rules for eligibility and sponsorship agreements in order to assure that aliens be self-reliant in accordance with national immigration policy.” However, under intense pressure from key constituencies within his political base as he was seeking reelection, President Clinton’s administration redefined “public charge” to allow both legal and illegal aliens to collect most types of welfare benefits without penalty.

Given that a substantial majority of immigrants now rely on public welfare to put food on their families’ tables, a roof over their heads, and to meet their basic health care needs, the current administration’s effort to more accurately define what it means to be a public charge amounts to a good faith effort to address the “compelling government interest” Congress asserted when it overhauled the nation’s welfare system.

The percentage of immigrants relying on welfare programs almost precisely mirrors the percentage of immigrants who are admitted to the United States under our failed family chain migration policies. In 2016, 68 percent of new green cards were issued to people whose only qualification for admission was that they happened to be related to someone already in the United States, generally an extended family member. Another 13 percent were issued to people who were admitted as refugees, while 4 percent went to winners of the harebrained visa lottery.

In other words, most immigrants depend on welfare programs because most immigrants are not admitted based on any objective assessment of their likelihood to become self-reliant after settling here. Therefore, logic would dictate that if we don’t want to see people denied citizenship and other benefits because they are public charges, then we should scrap an immigration system that favors the admission of large numbers of people who are likely to become public charges.

Ironically, one year before Congress enacted welfare reform measures intended to ensure that immigrants are self-reliant, a bipartisan blue ribbon panel, chaired by civil rights icon Barbara Jordan, issued recommendations for overhauling our nation’s immigration policies. High on the list of recommendations was the adoption of a merit-based immigration system that would give greater weight to people’s job skills and education, and to nuclear family members.

The Jordan Commission recommendations were broadly endorsed by political leaders at the time, including by President Clinton, and then shelved because of fierce opposition from cheap labor business interests and ethnic advocacy groups. In the ensuing years, there have been several efforts to enact the recommendations made by the Jordan Commission, all of which have failed.

A merit-based immigration policy remains a meritorious idea. Perhaps the Trump administration’s efforts to make good on the “compelling” interest of ensuring that immigrants are self-reliant finally will provide the impetus to institute immigration policies that admit people who have the wherewithal to be self-reliant.

Those who object to rule changes that will more accurately define what it means to be a public charge  — most notably congressional Democrats — have the power to render them moot. They can enact a merit-based immigration system that minimizes the number of people who rely on public assistance.

Ira Mehlman is media director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which seeks to reduce overall immigration to manage America’s growth, address environmental concerns, and maintain quality of life.