To be eligible for entry to the US or to apply for a green card, an applicant must be able to prove that they have enough financial support to visit or live in the US without concern of becoming reliant on US government welfare, that is, to become a public charge. This requirement has gone back more than 100 years as part of the US immigration laws.
Immigration and welfare laws have generated some concern about whether a noncitizen may face adverse immigration consequences for having received federal, state, or local public benefits. Some noncitizens and their families are eligible for public benefits–including disaster relief, treatment of communicable diseases, immunizations, and children’s nutrition and health care programs–without being found to be a public charge. We are often asked what qualifies as a public charge and what sort of assistance would make an individual inadmissible?
In determining inadmissibility, USCIS defines “public charge” as an individual who is likely to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance, or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.” In determining whether an alien meets this definition for public charge inadmissibility, a number of factors are considered, including age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills. No single factor, other than the lack of an affidavit of support, if required, will determine whether an individual is a public charge.
Programs that are likely to be viewed as those which would make a noncitizen inadmissible as a public charge include:
- Cash assistance for income maintenance through Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program
- State or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance
Each of the above are often called “general assistance” programs and acceptance of public cash from these sort of programs could make a noncitizen inadmissible. However, the mere receipt of these benefits do not automatically make an individual inadmissible, or ineligible to adjust status to lawful permanent resident, or deportable on public charge grounds. USCIS will make a determination on a case-by-case basis and will review it in the context of the totality of the circumstance.
In addition, public assistance, including Medicaid, that is used to support aliens who reside in an institution for long-term care (nursing home, mental health institute), may also be considered as an adverse factor in the totality of the circumstances for purposes of public charge determination.
The following non-cash benefits and special-purpose cash benefits (that are not intended for income maintenance) are not subject to public charge consideration:
- Medicaid and other health insurance and health services (including public assistance for immunizations and for testing and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases, use of health clinics, short-term rehabilitation services, prenatal care and emergency medical services) other than support for long-term institutional care
- Children’s Health Insurance Program
- Nutritional programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is commonly referred to as Food Stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and any other supplementary and emergency food assistance programs
- Housing benefits
- Child care services
- Energy assistance, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Emergency disaster relief
- Foster care and adoption assistance
- Educational assistance (such as attending public school), including benefits under the Head Start Act and aid for elementary, secondary or higher education
- Job training programs
- In-kind, community-based programs, services or assistance (such as soup kitchens, crisis counseling and intervention and short-term shelter)
- Non-cash benefits under TANF such as subsidized child care or transit subsidies
- Cash payments that have been earned, such as Title II Social Security benefits, government pensions, and veterans’ benefits, and other forms of earned benefits
- Unemployment compensation
It should be noted, that in general, lawful permanent residents who possess a “green card” cannot be denied US citizenship for lawfully receiving any public benefits for which they are eligible.