'Public Charge Rule' undermines immigrants with disabilities

Sarah K. Lanzo, Independent Living

September 27, 2019


If you're like me, you were probably confused when the White House released the final version of its "Public Charge Rule" in August, which would link an individual's immigration status to income and the use of certain public programs. Effective on Oct. 15, the rule could lead to the rejection of applications for green cards by those who have used government aid, such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid, for a total of 12 months within a three-year period, out of concern that individuals in need of assistance could become "public charges, primarily dependent on the government for subsistence."

It occurred to me to wonder: Is this also a tactic to hinder individuals with disabilities who are immigrants seeking citizenship?

Consider for a moment: what if you were a migrant who develops, or already has, a disability, while you are trying to be a contributing equal partner in our great society? Like many Americans with disabilities, you would probably be frustrated trying to obtain employment, and, having very little funds, at least temporarily would need Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefits that have assisted others prior to their becoming contributing, tax-paying citizens.

So, I was not too surprised when, early in September, 17 national disability advocacy groups filed an amicus brief opposing the administration’s Public Charge Rule as illegal disability discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Public Representation, the National Council on Independent Living and others joined in this "friend of the court" action in support of litigation to stop the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from implementing the rule. Twenty-one states, led by California, Washington and New York, had also filed cases to block the new rule.

The advocacy groups — representing tens of thousands of people with disabilities and their families across the country — claim that the new public charge rule will prevent people with disabilities from entering this country or becoming legal residents, in violation of federal disability law. 

“The new public charge rule is based on an insidious and outdated notion that people with disabilities do not have a valued place in American society,” said Alison Barkoff, director of advocacy for the Center for Public Representation. “Almost 30 years ago, Congress removed the per se exclusion of immigrants with disabilities, recognizing the discrimination and prejudice these policies embodied.”

Samuel Bagenstos, University of Michigan law professor and former principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, noted, “An individual’s disability counts against them in multiple factors considered in the new rule. DHS even admits in the preamble to the rule that it will have an ‘outsized’ impact on people with disabilities.”

Furthermore, Claudia Center, senior staff attorney with the ACLU, pointed out, “Congress has explicitly recognized the importance of Medicaid in enabling people with disabilities to be productive, contributing members of society. Studies show that access to Medicaid increases employment for people with disabilities. That is the opposite of a public charge.”

Various advocates have predicted that, if would-be citizens are forced to choose between their healthcare and immigration status, it will lead to a major public health crisis.

Our grandparents and parents have found these programs benefited all who needed some assistance as they worked to become full and equal partners in making America great. For that matter, it was my grandparents and others who came to this country from overseas that supported, fought for, and had their elected leaders establish these mechanisms, thus ensuring that we all can live in our neighborhoods, work in our communities, and engage with society, as we became those equal partners!


Sarah K. Lanzo is the director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 284-4131, extension 200.