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Public Charge in US Immigration

Per the USCIS’s Field Guidance manual, “Public charge” means a foreign national who (for deportation purposes) has become or 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.”

Many foreign nationals who wish to enter the US and/or become Legal Permanent Residents (green card holders) are of the opinion that if they or their relatives and dependents receive various public benefits from the federal government or state governments, the USCIS or the Department of State (DOS) will conclude that they are likely to become a “public charge” and as such will deny them a Green Card. Per US immigration laws, a public charge finding might result in direct rejection of an application to adjust to Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) status by the USCIS, rejection of an immigrant visa to enter the US by the US Embassies or Consulates, or even deportation in certain circumstances.

A foreign national who is likely to become a public charge is inadmissible and ineligible to become a legal permanent resident of the US. He/She can also be deported if he/she has become a public charge within five years after his/her date of entry. For deportation purposes, an immigration judge will have the final say during removal proceedings.

The USCIS does not believe that receiving any publicly funded services will render a foreign national a public charge, or indicate that the foreign national is likely to become a public charge. In fact, there are many benefits that foreign nationals may receive that will not render them a public charge. Mainly, the nature of the public program has to be considered. Attending public schools, taking advantage of school lunch or other supplemental nutrition programs, or receiving emergency medical care would not make a foreign national inadmissible as a public charge, despite using public funds.

The following public benefits may render a foreign national a public charge:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program
  • State or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance, called “General Assistance” programs
  • Public assistance, including Medicaid, used for supporting foreign nationals who reside in an institution for long-term care, such as a nursing home or mental health institution

Accepting these forms of public cash assistance could make one a public charge, if all other criteria are met under the totality of circumstances test. Also note that short-term institutionalization for rehabilitation is not subject to public charge.

It is important to note that not all cash assistance is provided for purposes of income maintenance. So not all cash assistance is relevant for public charge purposes. Some energy assistance programs provide supplemental benefits through cash payments (in addition to vouchers or in-kind benefits), depending on the locality and the type of fuel needed. Similarly, cash payments can also be provided for childcare assistance. Such supplemental cash benefits should not be considered as public charge because they are not evidence of primary dependence on the government for subsistence.

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