New “Public Charge” Rule Could Scare Away LIHEAP Applicants

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a final rule today, August 12, 2019, detailing a new policy on immigrants to the United States who may be considered a “public charge.” The new rule expands the definition of “public charge” to include a wide range of public assistance programs. An individual who is determined to be a public charge could face significant obstacles to applying for citizenship, modifying their green card, or extending or modifying non-immigrant visas.

While the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is not included in the new definition, we are concerned that this new rule will scare eligible LIHEAP applicants away from the program. NEADA has already begun to see lower application rates by households wary of President Trump’s immigration policies, and this new rule makes it even more likely that minority or mixed citizenship households will not seek out assistance.

Since 1999, the definition of “public charge” has broadly included recipients of public cash assistance and individuals who have received long-term care institutionalization at government expense. The new rule, originally proposed on October 10, 2018, would revise the current definition to include the following specific assistance programs:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP);
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF);
  • Federal, state, or local cash benefit programs, often called “General Assistance;”
  • Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers and Rental Assistance;
  • Medicaid, except for individuals under 21 years of age, or pregnant and up to 60-day postpartum women; and
  • Public housing.

The rule established a threshold for how much assistance an individual must receive in order to be considered a public charge. Under the new rule, individuals who received benefits for 12 months out of any 36-month period will be considered a public charge. Benefits are counted concurrently, so if someone receives multiple benefits (e.g. SSI and SNAP) in the same month, it is counted as two months of benefits.

Other important provisions include the following.

  • The program excludes benefits received while on active or reserve duty in the U.S. military, and the spouses and children of military members.
  • Benefits are only counted against the threshold once the individual has received them. Applying or being certified for benefits does not count. However, a prior application for benefits, whether or not the individual ultimately received them, could be considered in determining whether an individual is likely to become a public charge in the future.
  • Benefits received on behalf of someone else does not count against an individual unless the individual is specifically listed as beneficiary.

The full text of the final rule can be found on the Federal Register website. It will be officially published in the Federal Register on August 14, 2019.