Help Prevent the Public Charge Rule’s Chilling Effect

Here are tools to help California immigrant families cope with the new rule

Parents with their infant at the in a safety net clinic exam room
Photo: Jessica Brandi Lifland

On January 27, the US Supreme Court lifted a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking implementation of the new public charge rule proposed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This reckless policy change is set to take effect in California on February 24, even as multiple legal challenges continue to move through the federal courts.

The new public charge rule is a radical and harmful change in federal policy. For many years, US immigration officials have conducted public charge tests to determine whether certain immigrants applying for a green card or a visa to enter the US will likely become dependent on the government to meet basic needs. Historically, the use of two public benefits — cash welfare and government-funded long-term care — counted against applicants. Among other changes, the new public charge rule expands that list of benefits significantly to include federally funded, nonemergency Medi-Cal for those 21 and older (unless pregnant), CalFresh, and federal housing assistance.

The new regulation is an affront to American values of inclusivity and poses a major threat to the progress California has made in lowering its uninsured rate. It is appalling that a nation of immigrants would punish more recent immigrants for using basic health and nutrition services that they support with their tax dollars and for which they are legally eligible.

Widespread Confusion in Immigrant Communities

The most important thing right now is to provide accurate and accessible information to immigrant families. Unfortunately, the public charge rule, along with a multitude of anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric from the Trump administration, already has sown fear and confusion in immigrant communities. Because of the chilling effect, many immigrant families — including those not subject to a public charge test — are avoiding public benefits, including health care, for fear of hurting their or their family’s immigration status.

However, many immigrants aren’t subject to a public charge test and should be reassured that they can keep using the public benefits for which they and their family members are eligible. Immigrants who will be subject to the new public charge test should be referred to sound legal advice to help them make the best decisions for their families.

New Tools for Immigrant Families

The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County spearheaded the creation of texting and web-based screening tools to help immigrant families get the basic information they need about the public charge rule. The Legal Aid Society received input from the California Immigrant Policy Center, the California Primary Care Association, The Children’s Partnership, the National Immigration Law Center, and other key partners, as well as financial support from CHCF and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

With simple information in multiple languages and clear prompts and answers, the tools pose a series of questions that help the user understand how accessing public benefits may affect immigration status (their own or that of a friend of family member), which benefits are safe to use, and when and how to seek legal advice. The online tool includes links to more information about the public charge test and organizations offering more information.

To access the tools:

  • Send a text message to 650.376.8006. The message should simply say “benefits” for English, “libre” for Spanish, “福利” for Chinese, or “lợiích” for Vietnamese language assistance.
  • Go online to visit (also available in Spanish and Chinese).

These tools are designed for immigrants and their family members, as well as for those who conduct outreach and education, and those who assist people accessing public benefits, such as promotoras and community organizations. The tools offer useful factual information but not formal legal advice.

Help Us Spread the Word

I encourage you to share these tools with immigrant family members and friends. Organizations working directly with immigrant communities can:  

  • Post information and a link to the screening tools on your website.
  • Download these cards (ZIP) to post to your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #KeepYourBenefits.
  • Send out an email blast with a link to the tools or share them in your next newsletter.

If you have questions, contact Hope Nakamura ( at the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County.

We Are Determined to Create a California for All

Many thanks go to the health, legal aid, and social service organizations on the front lines that support California’s immigrant families every day, and special thanks to Oakland’s own La Clínica de La Raza (PDF), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and all those fighting the public charge rule in the courts.

All of California loses when our immigrant families drop out of the health and nutrition services they need. California can and will chart a different course. With unwavering commitment, we will work to fight fear with facts and help California become a place where everyone can thrive.

Jessica Brandi Lifland

Jessica Brandi Lifland is a freelance photographer, instructor of journalism at City College of San Francisco, and mother. Her work with publications and nonprofits such as Operation Smile, Tostan, and the California Health Care Foundation has taken her all over the world, including West Africa, the Middle East, Kosovo, Burma, Haiti, and South America. Read More

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