As nearly 20 states move to block the Trump administration's new "public charge" rule making it harder for legal immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship, advocacy groups warn the rule will have another consequence: a negative effect on the U.S. economy, with potentially billions in losses.
The rule, finalized on Aug. 14, makes it more likely that a legal immigrant who uses benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing assistance for more than 12 months in any 36-month period will be identified as a "public charge," jeopardizing their potential to get a green card and become a citizen.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday filed a preliminary injunction to pressure a judge to move forward with its lawsuit, requesting a hearing for Oct. 3. The lawsuit says the rule, scheduled to take effect on Oct. 15, penalizes immigrants who use public benefits.
"This punitive rule is a threat to the fabric of our communities and goes against our California values," Becerra said in a press release. "We will not stand by as this Administration tries to weaponize the safety net programs that support working families across the nation."
Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank based in Washington, noted that there are at least six lawsuits related to the public charge rule. "We can't wait for the normal course of several years. We need to stop this now," Schott said.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the rule, which is a new version of one that has been on the books for decades, is designed to make sure immigrants who become citizens are self-sufficient.
"Throughout our history, self-reliance has been a core principle in America. The virtues of perseverance, hard work, and self-sufficiency laid the foundation of our nation and have defined generations of immigrants seeking opportunity in the United States," he said.
California's complaint contradicts that premise. It says the "Rule's design fails to promote self-sufficiency because its income threshold is prohibitive even to low- and moderate-wage workers who do not use public benefits, and instead stifles a noncitizen's ability to attain upward mobility by creating barriers to medical coverage and lawful employment. Nor is self-sufficiency served by a rule that discourages the use of non-cash healthcare, housing, and nutrition assistance."
Critics of the public charge rule say it's not only cruel but could harm the greater U.S. economy. According to a 2018 report from the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute, the economy could lose as much as $33.8 billion and 230,000 jobs if 35% of immigrants who use public assistance such as Medicaid and food stamps leave those programs.
FPI published the report shortly after the Department of Homeland Security proposed the rule last year.
"The Fiscal Policy Institute's research has repeatedly proven the economic benefits that immigrants provide to our country," said Cyierra Roldan, a policy analyst for FPI. "Any disruption or chilling effect on immigrants will have an impact on our economy."
There are 35 million legal immigrants in the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Center estimate. About 10 million use public benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.
When fewer people sign up for such services, less money goes to states for these programs, resulting in a decline in federal payments to states, Roldan said.
Fewer benefits also means less money in consumer pockets, leading to fewer grocery purchases and doctor visits, which could lead to less hiring or even job cuts, she added.
Mark Greenberg, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said the rule is a "tremendous concern" for immigrant communities. "The greatest concern," he said, is that people who are not affected by the rule will stop using aid because they don't understand the parameters of the law.
Refugees and asylum seekers are among those who are exempt.
"Food stamps provide essential nutrition assistance for children and families, and if families are fearful of getting Medicaid, it will be bad for them because they are not receiving the needed health-care coverage," he added.
The chilling effect appears to be happening already. A national survey found that 13.7% of adults in immigrant families declined to participate in non-cash benefits when the rule was initially proposed in 2018 for "fear of risking future green card status."
The rate was even higher, at 20.7%, for low-income families, according to the Urban Institute's 2018 Well-Being of Basic Needs Survey.
Madeline Morcelle, staff attorney at the Mississippi Center for Justice, said the public charge regulation is a move by the administration meant to "punish lawful immigrants and their families."
"It's designed to cause fear and result in sweeping disenrollment from these programs that Congress has made certain categories of immigrants legally entitled to," Morcelle said. "It's an administrative overreach ... because Congress is not in favor of those changes."