Five Key Facts About Immigrants’ Understanding of U.S. Immigration Laws, Including Public Charge

Figure 5 was updated on March 11, 2024, to correct an error in the bar showing data for immigrants who speak English exclusively or very well.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue in U.S. political debate for decades, with immigration policy at the federal level often shifting dramatically between presidential administrations. For example, under longstanding U.S. policy, federal officials can deny an individual entry to the U.S. or adjustment to lawful permanent status (a green card) if they determine the individual is a “public charge” based on their likelihood of becoming primarily dependent on the government for subsistence. In 2019, the Trump Administration made changes to this policy to newly consider the use of noncash assistance programs, including Medicaid, in public charge determinations. In 2022, the Biden Administration reversed these changes, but many immigrant families remain confused and uncertain about the policy.

Political debates and campaign statements about immigration can further contribute to confusion and fear among immigrant families. Immigration has emerged as a key issue in the 2024 presidential election campaign, with Donald Trump indicating plans to vastly restrict immigration and conduct mass deportations of undocumented immigrants if elected, and with President Biden facing criticism over the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Amid this environment, immigrants’ understanding of immigration laws has implications for their feelings of security and willingness to access assistance programs that may support their and their children’s well-being. Below are five key facts about immigrants understanding of U.S. immigration laws drawing on the 2023 KFF/LA Times Survey of Immigrants. For methodological details of the survey, more KFF analysis, and reporting from the LA Times, please visit the overview report, Understanding the U.S. Immigrant Experience.

About half of immigrants say they do not have enough information to understand how U.S. immigration policies impact them and their families.

This share rises to seven in ten (69%) immigrants who are likely undocumented and six in ten of those with limited English proficiency (58%) or lower incomes (57%) (Figure 1). Confusion and lack of information may contribute to fears among immigrant families and lead some immigrants to avoid accessing assistance programs that could ease financial challenges and facilitate access to health care for themselves and their children, who are often U.S.-born. Confusion and fears may escalate amid growing immigration policy debates.

About six in ten (58%) immigrants are not sure whether use of government programs that help pay for health care, housing, or food will decrease an immigrant’s chance of getting a green card.

Another 16% incorrectly believe this to be the case. Among immigrants who are likely undocumented, nine in ten are either unsure (68%) or incorrectly believe use of these types of public programs will decrease their chances for green card approval (22%). These findings highlight the importance of continued outreach and education efforts to help immigrants understand public charge policies.

One in twelve immigrants say they have avoided noncash government assistance programs because they didn’t want to draw attention to their or a family member’s immigration status, rising to one in five among those who believe the use of noncash assistance will decrease one’s chances of getting a green card.

These shares are even higher among immigrants in households with incomes below $40,000 and those who are noncitizens, suggesting that immigration-related fears and confusion about public charge rules have consequences, particularly for immigrants who may have the greatest need for these assistance programs.

One in four immigrants with limited English proficiency (LEP) say that difficulty speaking or understanding English has made it hard for them to apply for government financial help with food, housing, or health coverage.

This includes three in ten (31%) immigrants with LEP who have household incomes under $40,000. Beyond fears and confusion, lack of linguistically accessible information and assistance may serve as an additional barrier for immigrants to access assistance programs. Among immigrants with LEP, about six in ten (62%) speak Spanish, 7% speak a dialect of Chinese, 4% speak Vietnamese, and smaller shares speak a variety of other languages, highlighting the importance of accessible information in multiple languages.

Immigrants say they use a variety of sources for information on U.S. immigration policy, including search engines, U.S. government websites, and attorneys or other professionals.

Asked where they would go if they had a question about U.S. immigration policy, about one third of immigrants say they would go to a search engine such as Google first; another third say they would go directly to a U.S. government website. One in six (16%), rising to nearly four in ten likely undocumented immigrants (38%), say they would consult an attorney or other professional. Immigrants with LEP are split between using a search engine like Google (30%), a U.S. government website (26%) or an attorney or other professional (24%). The findings highlight the importance of having accurate and trusted online information sources for immigrants that are available in multiple languages. They also illustrate the potential vulnerability of immigrants to misinformation online and immigration scams.

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