The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has proposed a new rule for determining adult immigrants’ eligibility for green cards and changes in visa status. The proposed rule hinges on whether the immigrant is or may become dependent on public support:
Samantha Deshommes, Chief, Regulatory Coordination Division
Office of Policy and Strategy, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Department of Homeland Security
20 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20529-2140
Re: DHS Docket No. USCIS-2010-0012
Dear Ms. Deshommes
I write on behalf of the National Coalition for Literacy regarding the proposed changes to federal policy on the public charge as outlined in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking referenced above. The Coalition opposes the proposed changes because they will have an adverse effect on adult immigrants’ ability to become and remain valuable contributors to U.S. economic and societal strength.
The NCL is a coalition of leading national, regional, and local organizations dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the United States. A number of our member organizations and affiliates are submitting comments related to their specific constituencies; the comments provided here address the overall potential effects of the proposed changes. Our concerns fall into three categories: potential obstacles to adult immigrants’ participation in education and training; potential challenges for adult education and workforce training providers; and potential issues for state and local adult education systems.
Potential Obstacles to Adult Immigrants’ Participation in Education and Training
- The new rule could force immigrants who are adult learners and jobseekers to choose between their health and their education. While education and training programs themselves are not included in the list of public benefits that would count against immigrant applicants seeking green cards or changes in visa status, many participants in training programs depend on other benefits that would be counted against them—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP) or Medicaid—to be able to persist and complete their education. As a result, immigrants who are adult learners and jobseekers could be faced with the difficult decision of whether to dis-enroll from health and nutrition programs and jeopardize their ability to complete their training, or to stay enrolled in the programs and potentially jeopardize their immigration status.
- The new rule would undermine immigrant workers’ ability to upskill for in-demand occupations. The overwhelming majority of jobs in the U.S. economy today require some postsecondary education; an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that 84 percent of jobs today require education and skills beyond the high school level. The U.S. labor market has especially strong demand for workers at the middle-skill level: jobs that require more than a high school diploma, but not a four-year degree.
Immigrants represent one in six American workers, and are crucial to meeting the demand for middle-skill occupations such as machine operator, welder, certified nurse aide, and computer user support specialist. Training for middle-skill occupations is often provided by community colleges, where some immigrants draw on public benefits such as SNAP to enable them to complete their studies. Counting these students’ use of public benefits as a negative factor in the public charge test will undermine their ability to upskill and prepare for the open positions that American employers need to fill.
- The new rule would reduce enrollment, retention, and completion rates in adult education and workforce programs. Evidence from prior changes in immigration policy strongly suggests that many immigrants who are not subject to the public charge test will nevertheless withdraw from a broad array of public programs and services out of confusion, fear, or an abundance of caution. For example, following passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, thousands of immigrant families withdrew from public benefits programs for which they were eligible. The proposed new rule has been widely publicized, and human services agencies are already reporting an increase in immigrants disenrolling from public benefits programs. If this regulation is enacted, it is reasonable to expect that this type of disenrollment will continue, and will include two types of needless disenrollment: 1) immigrants who are not subject to the public charge test, and 2) immigrants who disenroll even from services that are not included in the public charge determination. Such needless disenrollment would lower overall participation rates for adult education and workforce programs, as well as reducing the likelihood of success for participants who withdraw from services midway through a program.
- The new rule would increase financial instability for immigrants who are college students and heighten their risk of dropping out. Many college students are part of larger households, either as adult children or as spouses and parents themselves. This is especially true for community college students, whose average age is 26 years old. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one-third of community college students have family income of less than $20,000 per year. Penalizing immigrant students for drawing on public benefits would have a tremendous negative impact on these financially fragile households, making it more likely that students would need to cut back on their course load or withdraw from education altogether. The long-term effect would be to reduce higher education attainment among some of the very students who most need to build a strong economic footing for themselves, their families, and their American communities.
- The new rule could punish immigrants for attempting to improve their English skills. Research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that better basic skills and higher earnings are tightly connected in the United States – more so than in other industrialized countries. This means that as immigrants improve their reading, math, and spoken English skills, they are better able to contribute economically to American society. The proposed regulation acknowledges the centrality of English language skills to economic self-sufficiency by characterizing them as a positive factor in the totality of circumstances test. However, individuals commonly improve their English skills through participation in education programs such as those offered at community colleges. Individuals who rely on Medicaid or other public benefits to enable them to succeed in their English language classes could be discouraged from continuing their education and improving their employability by fear of being found a public charge.
Potential Challenges for Adult Education and Workforce Training Providers
- The new rule would create confusion and add expensive, time-consuming responsibilities for financial aid advisors, guidance counselors, and educators. Adult learners and workers rely on professionals to give them accurate guidance as they make important life decisions about which higher education or workforce program to enroll in, how to pay for tuition, how much debt they can safely take on, and the financial consequences of their decisions. The proposed rule would increase the preparation required for high school guidance counselors, college financial aid advisers, career navigators, and other education professionals, as they would need substantial training in order to provide accurate guidance to immigrant applicants and their families about the repercussions of accessing public benefits as they pursue their educational goals. School districts, higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations would thus be subject to an unfunded mandate. Higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and state and local agencies would also face the challenge of updating enrollment forms, software programs, and other documentation that currently reassures participants that enrolling in publicly funded programs will not jeopardize their immigration status, and substituting a much more nuanced and complicated disclaimer.
- The new rule would place workforce professionals at risk of providing advice far beyond their areas of expertise. There are more than 550 workforce boards in the United States, thousands of American Job Centers, and tens of thousands of workforce training providers. Staff at these agencies and programs are expected to be knowledgeable about workforce development, not to be immigration legal experts. The new rule would remove a clear, bright-line standard for when an immigrant may be considered a public charge, and replace it with a highly complex, multi-faceted test. This increased complexity would make it difficult for education and workforce provider staff to advise participants in a straightforward way on whether using a public benefit might jeopardize their immigration status. As a result, workforce systems could be forced to use scarce public resources to train staff on an exceptionally complicated new set of federal restrictions. In addition, confusion or excessive caution could lead individuals to be turned away from services for which they are actually eligible.
Potential Issues for State and Local Adult Education Systems
- The new rule would undercut state and local education and workforce policy goals. State and local governments regularly advance policies to improve the education and employability of their residents. For example, more than 40 states have established goals for postsecondary credential attainment, such as having 60 percent of state residents earn a college degree or other postsecondary credential by 2025. Many states will not be able to reach their goals without including their immigrant residents.
To accomplish their goals, states have established programs and services to equip returning adult students to persist and succeed in their education, including through assistance in accessing key public benefits. For example, in 2018 Illinois passed Senate Bill 351, known as the College Hunger Bill, to facilitate access to SNAP benefits for certain low-income college students. Research has shown that supportive services that help individuals access public benefits programs are often vital to ensuring that working adults succeed in postsecondary education. However, the proposed public charge rule would penalize immigrants for using such benefits, thus creating a disincentive for them to participate in the very programs that are intended to help them succeed in their education and contribute economically. As a result, this federal regulation would undercut state and local efforts to invest in the human capital of their residents, by discouraging qualified immigrants from even applying for public benefits programs.
Our central concern is thus the negative effect that the proposed rule would likely have on immigrant participation in publicly funded adult education and workforce programs, extending far beyond the scope of the proposed rule itself. Even though the public charge proposal does not apply to some categories of immigrants (such as refugees), and even though it does not include education and workforce programs, the mere proposal of these regulatory changes has already had a notable negative effect. Given the complexity of the new rule, education and workforce professionals may find it difficult to give a blanket reassurance to worried adult learners and jobseekers, and may see dips in enrollment, participation, and completion.
In light of these concerns, the NCL urges DHS to withdraw the proposed rule in its entirety, and instead to allow the principles that were affirmed in the 1999 field guidance on public charge to remain in effect. This field guidance, issued by the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), is consistent with Congressional intent and case law. It represents a clear, straightforward standard that is administratively simple and relatively non-burdensome for workforce and education service providers to communicate to their immigrant constituents, and has been in use for decades.
Thank you in advance for your thoughtful consideration of these comments and for your action in response to the concerns we raise.
 Source: The United States’ Forgotten Middle (National Skills Coalition, 2017.) Available at https://www.nationalskillscoalition.org/resources/publications/2017-middle-skills-fact-sheets/file/United-States-MiddleSkills.pdf
Source: Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration (Migration Policy Institute, February 8, 2018.) https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states
 Michael Fix & Jeffery Passel, Trends in Noncitizens’ and Citizens’ Use of Public Benefits Following Welfare Reform, March 1999, (noting fear and confusion around public charge as a factor in noncitizen benefit enrollment decreases), available at https://www.urban.org/research/publication/trends-noncitizens-and-citizens-use-public-benefits-following-welfare-reform. Also see Leighton Ku & Alyse Freilich, Caring for Immigrants: Health Care Safety Nets in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Houston, Feb. 2001 (detailing several conversations with immigrants who decided that the risk of public charge was too great to receive Medicaid, even though policy had been issued that Medicaid posed no public charge risk), available at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED453330.pdf
 Source: ”Spooked by Trump Proposals, Immigrants Abandon Public Nutrition Services,” (New York Times, March 6, 2018.) Available at: www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/us/politics/trump-immigrants-public-nutrition-services.html
 Source: Community College FAQs (Community College Research Center, Columbia University, n.d.) Available at : https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html
 Time for the US to Reskill? (OECD, 2013.)
 See overview of all states here: https://www.wsac.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2017.04.19.04.Attainment%20Goals%20are%20Critical.pdf and details on 29 of the state goals here: http://strategylabs.luminafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/State-Attainment-Goals.pdf
 See, for example: Middle Skill Credentials and Immigrant Workers : Texas’ Untapped Assets (National Skills Coalition, 2017.) https://m.nationalskillscoalition.org/resources/publications/file/Middle-Skill-Credentials-and-Immigrant-Workers-Texas-Untapped-Assets.pdf
 Source : “Governor signs College Hunger Bill, assuring low-income community college students can access food security via SNAP, “ (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, n.d.) Available at : http://www.chicagohomeless.org/governor-signs-sb315-assuring-low-income-community-college-students-can-access-food-security-through-snap/
 Source: Connecting College Students to Alternative Sources of Support The Single Stop Community College Initiative and Postsecondary Outcomes (Rand Corp., 2016.) Available at:
Click to access RAND-Report_Executive-Summary-1.pdf
 For evidence of this effect, see “A proposed federal policy won’t target immigrants for using welfare. In Texas, they might drop out anyway” (Texas Tribune, Sept 28, 2018). Available at: https://www.texastribune.org/2018/09/28/public-charge-immigration-chilling-effects-texas/. See also “Immigrants drop subsidized food, health programs – fearing aid will be used against them” (NBC News, Sept 8, 2018). Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/immigrants-drop-subsidized-food-health-programs-fearing-aid-will-be-n906246.