Family reunification has long been the cornerstone of U.S. immigration policies. Yet, last year when the administration made changes to guidance around “public charge”—a policy that many consider an economic litmus test for who can come to or stay in the U.S.—advocates decried the impact it would have on families.
These fateful predictions are ringing true, as the U.S. Department of State (DOS) denied a record-number of visas after the changes went into effect.
According to recent government data, DOS issued fewer immigrant visas overall in fiscal year (FY) 2018 compared to the previous year. Yet one figure was particularly noticeable. The number of visas denied on “public charge” grounds jumped more than 300 percent from FY 2017 to FY 2018.
In order to qualify for an immigrant visa to the United States, many immigrants must show that they are not likely to become a public charge—someone who is primarily dependent on state benefits. In FY 2018, DOS reported that 13,450 immigrant visas were initially rejected on public charge grounds, up from 3,237 denials in FY 2017 and 1,076 in FY 2016.
What caused such a dramatic increase in these visa denials?
Experts point to revised instructions in the DOS Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) involving the “public charge test.” State Department officials in U.S. embassies and consulates abroad use the FAM when deciding whether to grant permission to someone applying for a visa to enter the United States on a permanent (immigrant) or temporary basis (nonimmigrant).
The revisions changed how officials examine the main factors in the public charge test. Before the revised instructions, an immigrant visa applicant’s sponsor could provide an affidavit of support to show they agreed to support the new immigrant in the United States. This support on its own was generally enough to overcome negative findings in the public charge test.
Now, an affidavit of support is just another piece of evidence for an official to consider. As a result, the changes in the FAM instructions likely led to a much higher number of visas denied on public charge grounds.
Since visa applicants can submit new evidence after the initial denial and in the next fiscal year, it is not yet clear how many of the FY 2018 denials may ultimately be overcome.
It is important to note who is most impacted by these changes. The majority of denials in FY 2018 were for immigrant visa applicants, such as non-U.S. citizens seeking entry to the country to join or reunite with family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. As a former DOS official said in a recent interview:
“These denials are for immigrant visa applicants and primarily impacted family immigration cases, leading to separations of family members (mainly spouses, parents and children of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents).”
While the FAM revisions were relatively narrow compared to the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed regulations redefining the legal term “public charge,” they appear to have profoundly affected DOS visa adjudications. This may signal how seriously visa numbers could change under the proposed regulatory changes.
In the end, the spike in DOS visa denials on public charge grounds is a clear example of how the Trump administration has made quiet policy changes to dramatically affect the U.S. immigration admissions system, making it more difficult for families to reunite through the existing legal immigration channels.