Congress

‘Public charge’ rule creates Homeland spending bill headache

Amendment blocks proposed rules on immigrant access to Medicaid and food stamps

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., offered an amendment that would block the Department of Homeland Security's proposed "public charge" rule from going into effect. (File photo by Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

An amendment inserted into the House's fiscal 2020 Homeland Security spending bill by Appropriations Committee Democrats during the panel's June markup would bust the subcommittee's allocation by nearly $3.1 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Adopted on a 28-21 vote, the amendment from Reps. David E. Price of North Carolina, Pete Aguilar and Barbara Lee of California, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin would block a number of Trump administration immigration policies, including protecting beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals from deportation and revoking Trump's travel ban against predominantly Muslim countries.

[No funding for Trump’s border wall is included in House Homeland Security funding bill]

The committee report on the Homeland Security bill, filed July 24, noted in the summary tables that "House full committee amendment (Price, et al)" would cost $3.07 billion, incorporating CBO data. The major cost-driver of the amendment, according to a House Appropriations aide, is a provision that would block the Department of Homeland Security's proposed "public charge" rule from going into effect.

The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on Oct. 10, 2018. It would allow immigration authorities to deny entry into the U.S., or green cards for legal permanent residency for applicants already in the U.S., to those deemed likely to at some point rely on noncash public benefits, such as Medicaid, food stamps, low-income housing or Medicare prescription drug subsidies.

That would be on top of current restrictions, on the books for decades, that deny admission or green cards to applicants who might rely on cash welfare benefits or long-term institutional care.

"The expanded list of considerations is mean-spirited and excessive," Price said in remarks introducing the amendment during full committee debate. "A change in these public charge factors will lead to decreased participation in these safety net programs ... it could have alarming effects on public health." Price said immigrants have already been forgoing food stamps and supplemental nutrition benefits for women, infants and children "for fear that if they participate they will threaten their citizenship eligibility or increase their risk of deportation."

DHS argues in its proposed rule and on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website that the statute governing what constitutes a "public charge" has long been murky and ill-defined.

The agency "seeks to better ensure that aliens subject to the public charge inadmissibility ground are self-sufficient, i.e., do not depend on public resources to meet their needs, but rather rely on their own capabilities, as well as the resources of family members, sponsors, and private organizations," the proposed rule states. The regulations have not been finalized and will not be until DHS "carefully considers public comments received on the proposed rule" and determines an appropriate effective date.

When the Trump administration proposed the rule, DHS officials estimated that the policy change would reduce transfer payments from federal and state governments by $2.27 billion annually, "due to disenrollment or foregone enrollment in public benefits programs by aliens who may be receiving public benefits." That included a federal share of approximately $1.51 billion and state share of about $756 million, DHS said.

The CBO estimate lawmakers have to rely on is another major hurdle to House Democrats putting their fiscal 2020 Homeland Security bill on the floor for a vote. It's one of just two appropriations bills in that chamber that haven't yet reached the floor, the other being the Legislative Branch measure, held up in a dispute over lifting the decade-old member pay freeze. The House has passed 10 other spending bills.

The amendment barring the new potential public charge rule from taking effect, among other Trump immigration policies, is likely to be caught up in the broader funding fight over the DHS bill. With the Price amendment, the House version now clocks in at $66.88 billion, including $14.08 billion in disaster relief funding that doesn't count towards the subcommittee's allocation, known as a 302(b).

But under the new two-year budget deal signed by President Donald Trump last Friday, House Democrats have to find $15 billion to trim within nondefense accounts across the federal government from their already-written spending bills. And Trump is seeking $5 billion for his proposed southern border wall project in DHS accounts, something Senate Republicans, who will be under pressure to try to comply with the president's demands now that he's agreed to spend more money across the board.

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