The Public Charge Doctrine: From Colonial Times to Today

Parsing Immigration Policy, Episode 21

By Mark Krikorian and Robert Law on September 16, 2021

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Listen to "The Public Charge Doctrine: From Colonial Times to Today" on Spreaker.


The "public charge" doctrine – meaning that a person likely to have to be supported by taxpayers (a public charge) should not be permitted to immigrate – is one of the oldest elements of American immigration policy. Colonial Massachusetts enacted the earliest public charge law in 1645, while the first immigration law at the federal level, in 1882, likewise excluded immigrants who were likely to become a burden on taxpayers.

But then as now, the main question is how to define public charge.

In this week’s episode of Parsing Immigration Policy, Robert Law, the Center’s director of regulatory law and policy, walks listeners through the recent developments in this area, starting with 1996 legislation that sought to restrict immigrant access to welfare. But Congress left it to the executive to determine the specifics, and so the Clinton administration defined being a public charge as being primarily dependent on the government through cash welfare, but not non-cash welfare. That meant that a person could receive food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized housing, etc., and still be considered "self-sufficient".

Law explained that the Trump administration issued a regulation that, among other things, eliminated the distinction between cash and non-cash forms of public assistance. Those measures were challenged in court long enough to run out the clock on the administration, allowing the incoming Biden administration to refuse to defend them in court, thus reverting for now to the Clinton-era rules.

To craft a more durable rule, the Biden USCIS has published advance notice of proposed rulemaking, which is essentially a call for the public and advocacy groups to provide their thoughts. The 60-day period for comment closes on October 22. Comments can be submitted here.

In the closing commentary, Mark Krikorian, the Center’s executive director and host of Parsing Immigration Policy, discusses the proposed amnesty for 8 million illegal aliens and the massive increase in legal immigration that House leadership has included in the budget reconciliation bill.


Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.


Robert Law, Director of Regulatory Affairs and Policy

Related Reports

USCIS Crowdsourcing Public Charge Revision

Legal Immigration Will Implode Under ‘Budget Reconciliation’ Bill

Never-Ending Green Cards for Criminals in ‘Budget Reconciliation’ Bill

Amnesty in the Reconciliation Bill Could Cost Social Security and Medicare $1 Trillion


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Intro Montage

Voices in the opening montage:

  • Sen. Barack Obama at a 2005 press conference.
  • Sen. John McCain in a 2010 election ad.
  • President Lyndon Johnson, upon signing the 1965 Immigration Act.
  • Booker T. Washington, reading in 1908 from his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech.
  • Laraine Newman as a "Conehead" on SNL in 1977.
  • Hillary Clinton in a 2003 radio interview.
  • Cesar Chavez in a 1974 interview.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaking to reporters in 2019.
  • Prof. George Borjas in a 2016 C-SPAN appearance.
  • Sen. Jeff Sessions in 2008 comments on the Senate floor.
  • Charlton Heston in "Planet of the Apes".