Punishing Immigrant Families

The Murnaghan Fellowship, 03.22.19

In January 2018, the U.S. State Department began directing consular officials, in their review of visa applications, to apply an expanded definition of the term “public charge” in determining whether an application should be denied because the applicant “is likely to become a public charge.”  Under the expanded definition, participation by an applicant or his or her sponsor in non-cash benefit programs, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), may now result in denial of a visa.  During 2018, the State Department denied more than 13,000 visa applications on the ground that the applicant was “likely to become a public charge,” four times the number of such denials during the previous year, and more than fifteen times the number of such denials in calendar year 2015.

Murnaghan Fellow Ejaz Baluch has filed an amicus curiae brief in Mayor & City Council of Baltimore v. Trump, in which the City of Baltimore seeks a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland that the State Department’s “public charge” directive violates the Equal Protection clause and that the Department did not comply with the Administrative Procedure Act in issuing the directive.  Ejaz’s brief, filed on behalf of the Public Justice Center and four other organizations focused on providing services to immigrants and their families, demonstrates the impact of the State Department’s action on immigrant communities.  The brief cites evidence that, as a result of the State Department’s expanded definition of “public charge,” participation by immigrant mothers in SNAP decreased by 19% in 2018 in Baltimore and four other cities.  Drawing on the day-to-day experience of the amici organizations, Ejaz’s brief also describes cases in which the State Department’s action, for example, has discouraged immigrant parents from applying for nutritional and health benefits for their children for fear of jeopardizing the parents’ sponsorship of the visa application of a family member still living abroad, and has discouraged immigrants from taking steps to normalize their immigration status for fear that, because of their participation in non-cash benefit programs, those steps would backfire and result in their exclusion from the country.  Finally, Ejaz’s brief describes the adverse public health consequences for the entire community when immigrants and their families decline to participate in health- and nutrition-oriented programs, including, for example, when children remain unvaccinated.

Ejaz’s amicus brief is available here.