The Trump administration's new rules would place barriers on immigration for people without high income and good health, defining them as public charges. We explore the data on which groups would be most at risk from these rules, based on over 1,600 survey responses.

The concept of a public charge has been part of immigration law for over a century. Since 1999, immigration officers have defined a public charge as someone primarily dependent on government cash assistance to survive. People who meet this definition could be denied visas—but since almost no immigrants are eligible for cash assistance, this has not been a major barrier to immigration.

In August 2019, the Trump administration introduced new rules that dramatically expand the definition of public charge, requiring immigration officers to use a new 20-factor test that has little to do with government benefits. While the new rules are currently blocked in court, if enacted they would deny visas and green cards to many people who lack high income, medical insurance, perfect health, or English proficiency, among other factors. 

Our estimator tool gathered information from over 1,600 respondents seeking permanent resident status (green cards), and determined how likely the new public charge rule would be to put their application at risk. This report details the patterns we found from looking at the data in aggregate.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security's public charge rule will take effect on Feb. 24 after the Supreme Court lifted a nationwide injunction blocking the rule. This means that people applying for green cards and visas from within the United States — through a process known as "Adjustment of Status" — will soon be affected by the new rule.

The U.S. Department of State's public charge policy, which was recently aligned with the DHS rule, was temporarily delayed from going into force on its scheduled effective date, Oct. 15. This means that people applying for green cards and visas from outside the United States — through a process called "Consular Processing" — are not currently affected by the policy changes.

1. Insufficient income is the most common risk factor for being labeled a public charge.

For green card applicants, Boundless identified four primary risk factors that correspond to the administration's new public charge rules. Applicants with any of these factors, alone or in combination, would be automatically considered at high risk of being labeled public charges.  

Among the 1,600 respondents:

Among these four factors, an insufficient household income—125% of the federal poverty level line or below—was the most common by far; nearly 20% of green card applicants had this level of income. The next most-common high-risk factor was a lack of work experience or experience caring for a family member.

The other two high-risk factors were rarer among respondents. Applying for public benefits is not common among potential immigrants, because they are not typically eligible for most public programs. And having insufficient resources for medical costs—one of the main features of the new public charge rules—affected less than 2% of respondents. This last factor entails having both a potentially expensive medical condition and a lack of private health insurance or assets to cover it.

2. Immigrants from non-European, non-English regions are more likely to be categorized as high risk.

Respondents entered their country of origin into the risk estimator tool; we then grouped countries into broader world regions. The places with the least associated risk are European and English-speaking countries. European nations collectively had a high-risk rate of 22%; Canada and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and Pacific Islands) had a rate of 15%

The most high-risk region, on the other hand—Central America and the Caribbean—had more than double the lowest rate, with 35% of respondents at high risk of rejection as public charges. 

Note: hover over a bar to see the number of respondents (n) to which it corresponds. 

3. Men and women from different regions face different levels of risk.

Overall, men and women have roughly the same likelihood of being at high risk—28.3% among men, and 30.9% among women. However, certain regions have more extreme gender imbalances. 

The biggest imbalance was among South American respondents, where 44% of male respondents were at high risk, compared to 29% of female respondents. In many other regions, women were more likely to be at high risk than men. 

4. Family relative–based green card applicants are most likely to be at high risk. 

Among potential green card applicants seeking reunification with family relatives, almost 53% faced a high risk of rejection under the new public charge rules, according to the estimator tool. That's over twice the rate for marriage-based applicants (26%) and employment-based applicants (23%). 

Note: Relative-based green cards exclude married partners.

5. The public charge rules would not spare educated professionals.

The risk estimator tool asks respondents if they have a secondary education. It also asks if they "have any officially documented professional skills, certifications, or licenses."

People who answered yes to both questions are less likely to be designated as public charges than the overall respondent pool—24% of educated professionals, compared to 30% overall. But this is still a large group of people: 201 respondents out of the 1,615 were educated professionals with a high risk of being denied as public charges. 

Explore the data in detail. 

Choose a region to see breakdowns of respondents by country of origin and by gender.

Additional Resources

Public Charge Estimator Tool | This tool simulates the U.S. government’s public charge test to help green card applicants estimate their risk of denial under the new rules of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Department of State. 

What the Public Charge Rule Means for Immigrants | This blog post explains what the public charge rules are, their current state of enactment, and what they mean for potential immigrants seeking visas or green cards. 

LiveStats: Immigration and Citizenship | A comprehensive data hub for immigration statistics, available for every state, county, and city in the United States.


About the Data

Boundless aggregated data from 1,634 respondents who used the public charge risk estimator tool. The data includes responses from both potential beneficiaries and potential sponsors; the sponsors' entries reflect characteristics of their beneficiaries. We excluded responses from 19 beneficiaries who listed their country of origin as the United States, leaving a total of 1,615 respondents. 

While the data is illustrative, it should be interpreted with caution. Respondents' information may not be accurate, and some breakdowns have small sample sizes. Respondent characteristics have not been weighted or normalized to more accurately reflect the broader pool of potential green card applicants. 

What Risk Means

Low Risk: Favorable factors outweigh the unfavorable factors in your situation. This means that there are areas of improvement in your green card application, but the U.S. government is less likely to deny it compared with a moderate- or high-risk application.

Some Risk: Unfavorable factors either equal or outweigh the favorable factors in your situation. This means the U.S. government is likely to evaluate your green card application with heavier scrutiny than a low- or no-risk application but may not necessarily deny it.

High Risk: Unfavorable factors greatly outweigh the favorable factors in your situation. This means the U.S. government is likely to deny your green card application.