With the outbreak of the new coronavirus (COVID-19), drastic changes to immigration policy under the Trump administration may put many immigrants at risk if they are fearful to use public health services. On August 12, 2019, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) formally announced restrictions to issue visas and green cards to any immigrant who is deemed likely to depend on public cash assistance or government-funded care. In other words, any immigrant who is likely to use public assistance — such as Medicaid, food stamps, and other safety net programs — face heightened scrutiny from immigration officials. Even though the USCIS announced on March 13, 2020, a new provision that would protect immigrants who tested positive for the coronavirus, fear remains that immigrants will refrain from getting tested as those who test negative could be disqualified from getting green cards if they already received government benefits.
A study by PRRI reveals that Americans are evenly divided on whether potential government benefit use should disqualify undocumented immigrants from applying for citizenship if they are likely to become “public charges.” About half (46%) of Americans support and a slim majority (52%) oppose prohibiting applications for citizenship from undocumented immigrants if they are considered likely to use government benefits, such as health insurance.
Two-thirds (66%) of Republicans, compared to less than half (46%) of independents and less than three in ten (28%) Democrats, favor a policy that would prohibit applications for citizenship from undocumented immigrants deemed likely to use government benefits.
Majorities of white mainline Protestants (57%), white Catholics (54%), and white evangelical Protestants (53%) support a policy that would disqualify undocumented immigrants from applying for citizenship if they are deemed likely to use government benefits. Just over four in ten (42%) members of non-Christian religions and about one-third of black Protestants (35%) and religiously unaffiliated Americans (33%) support this policy.
There are sizable differences in the perspectives of white and nonwhite Americans on a policy that prohibits citizenship for immigrants who are deemed likely to use government benefits. White (48%) Americans are notably more likely than Hispanic (40%) and black Americans (33%) to favor this policy. White Americans without a college degree express more support for this policy than white college-educated Americans (54% vs 41%).
Fewer than four in ten (37%) young Americans ages 18-29 favor prohibiting undocumented immigrants from applying for citizenship if they are considered public charges, compared to nearly half of Americans ages 30-49 (47%), ages 50-64 (49%), and senior Americans ages 65 and over (46%).
Not surprisingly, Americans who support this policy are more than twice as likely as those who oppose it to agree that immigrants are burdening local communities by using more than their share of social services (70% vs 30%).
Historically, U.S. immigration law has deemed immigrants inadmissible to the United States if they may be considered a public charge, which is defined as “any person unable to take care of him or herself financially.” Criteria over who is likely to become a public charge has shifted over the years. The Trump administration’s new rule was challenged by many federal courts from going into effect, but the U.S. Supreme Court allowed it to begin implementation on January 27, 2020.