The Public Charge Rule Is Hardly a 'Wealth Test'

It's a self-reliance test

By Jason Richwine on February 26, 2020

When the Trump administration tightened enforcement of the public charge rule, the media adopted a peculiar name for it — the "wealth test". That term has been used in headlines by the New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, Bloomberg News, CNN, and many other outlets. The linked Times article is particularly odd in that its headline mentions the "wealth test" with no qualification or scare quotes, but then the subhead refers to "the so-called public charge rule":

The Times' usage implies that wealth test is a legal term and public charge is advocacy-speak, when in fact the reverse is true. The term public charge can be found in federal statutes dating back to the nineteenth century. Current law bars the entry of any alien who is "likely at any time to become a public charge." By contrast, if the term "wealth test" appears in any statute or regulation related to alien admissions, I am not aware of it.

Descriptive nicknames can be useful, of course, but "wealth test" is a misnomer. It implies that aliens must have lots of money if they wish to enter the United States. In fact, the public charge determination involves only whether applicants are likely to consume welfare. Immigrants certainly do not need to be wealthy (in the colloquial sense of "rich") in order to pass muster.

Furthermore, "assets, resources, and financial status" are only one factor among many that DHS considers when making a public charge determination. Others include age, health, family status, and education. The department's guidance is clear that no single immigrant characteristic — not wealth or anything else — controls its decision:

There is no "bright-line" test in making a public charge inadmissibility determination. The mere presence of any one of the enumerated factors, alone, is not outcome determinative, except for the absence of a sufficient affidavit of support, where required. Instead, the officer must determine that the applicant's circumstances, assessed in their totality, suggest that the applicant is more likely than not to become a public charge.

In other words, prospective immigrants with little savings may still gain admission if, for example, they are young, or in good health, or well educated, or have decent-paying jobs. If this policy constitutes a "wealth test", one could just as easily call it an "age test" or "health test" or "education test", and so on.

How such a misleading name as "wealth test" entered the political lexicon is not clear, but it seems to have emerged in 2018. Back then, media reports attributed the term to immigrant activist groups. In a development that will shock no one, the media eventually adopted it as their standard description of the public charge rule.

The media should consider calling the public charge rule "the public charge rule" and leave it at that. But if that name is really so unclear, then I propose they call the policy a "self-reliance test". Not only is the term actually written into the law — Congress has declared "a compelling government interest ... to assure that aliens be self-reliant" — it also accurately reflects the standard that DHS applies when making its public charge determinations.