Public Charge - Immigration Consequences of Receiving Benefits/Assistance

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In tomorrow's community conference call, one of the community members has raised the issue whether receiving certain kinds of State benefits becomes an issue for immigration.  The concern is well-founded in that receiving public (Federal or State) means tested (that depend upon the amount of income/expense) can lead to a determination that an applicant can become dependent upon government resources ("public charge").  That can lead to immigration being denied.  The issue of what constitutes such an impermissible receipt is difficult to decide in the abstract.  USCIS has summed it up well in the following two answers:

Q.  What publicly funded benefits may be considered for public charge purposes?

A.  Cash assistance for income maintenance and institutionalization for long-term care at government expense may be considered for public charge purposes.  However, receipt of such benefits must still be considered in the context of the totality of the circumstances before a person will be deemed inadmissible on public charge grounds.

Public benefits that are received by one member of a family are also not attributed to other family members for public charge purposes unless the cash benefits amount to the sole support of the family.

Acceptance of the following types of assistance may lead to the determination that the individual is likely to become a public charge:

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) under Title XVI of Social Security Act

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance (part A of Title IV of the Social Security Act--the successor to the AFDC program) (Note: Non cash benefits under TANF such as subsidized child care or transit subsidies cannot be considered and non-recurrent cash payments for crisis situations cannot be considered for evidence of public charge)
  • State and local cash assistance programs that provide benefits for income maintenance (often called "General Assistance" programs)
  • Programs (including Medicaid) supporting individuals who are institutionalized for long-term care (e.g., in a nursing home or mental health institution). (Note: costs of incarceration for prison are not considered for public charge determinations)

This is not an exhaustive list of the types of cash benefits that could lead to a determination that a person is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, and thus, a public charge.  Receipt of any such cash benefits not listed above will continue to be assessed under the “totality of the circumstances” analysis described above.

Q.  What publicly funded benefits may not be considered for public charge purposes?

A.  Non-cash benefits (other than institutionalization for long-term care) are generally not taken into account for purposes of a public charge determination.

Special-purpose cash assistance is also generally not taken into account for purposes of public charge determination.

Non-cash or special-purpose cash benefits are generally supplemental in nature and do not make a person primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.  Therefore, past, current, or future receipt of these benefits do not impact a public charge determination.  Non-cash or special purpose cash benefits that are not considered for public charge purposes include:

  • 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, and emergency medical services) other than support for long-term institutional care
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Nutrition programs, including Food Stamps, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and 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)

State and local programs that are similar to the federal programs listed above are also generally not considered for public charge purposes.  Please be aware that states may adopt different names for the same or similar publicly funded programs. It is the underlying nature of the program, not the name adopted in a particular state, which determines whether or not it should be considered for public charge purposes.  In California, for example, Medicaid is called "Medi-Cal" and CHIP is called "Healthy Families."  These benefits are not considered for public charge purposes.

In addition, and consistent with existing practice, cash payments that have been earned, such as Title II Social Security benefits, government pensions, and veterans' benefits, among other forms of earned benefits, do not support a public charge determination. Unemployment compensation is also not considered for public charge purposes. 

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