For over 100 years, immigrants classified as public charges have been inadmissible to the United States.
Public charges rely on government assistance. But what exactly is the definition of a public charge, and could receiving any benefits hurt an immigrant’s chance of becoming a US citizen?
Definition of a Public Charge
“Public charge” is a term used in immigration law to describe an individual who cannot support himself or herself through employment, assets or the help of family and instead depends on government benefits and assistance programs.
To determine whether a person is a public charge, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) looks at a number of factors, including age, assets, career skills, education, financial status, health and the status of the immigrant’s family.
Benefits Considered When Determining a Public Charge
USCIS also checks to see if an immigrant will require long-term institutional care or if an individual has used welfare programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or other General Assistance programs.
Use of these programs, especially short-term use of these programs, does not automatically disqualify someone from obtaining permanent residence. The USCIS evaluates each individual on a case-by-case basis.
Benefits Not Considered When Determining a Public Charge
There are many benefit programs that cannot be used to determine whether an immigrant is a public charge. Providing an entire list would be difficult, but some programs that immigrants are free to use without repercussions include:
- Medicaid and other health insurance, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
- Food Stamps, the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program and other food assistance services
- Housing benefits
- Child care services
- Adoption and foster care services
- Educational assistance
- Job training programs
- Emergency disaster relief programs
- Unemployment compensation
Exemptions & Deportation for Public Charges
Not all immigrants can be evaluated for use of welfare programs. For example, Cuban or Haitian immigrants or immigrants admitted to US as special juveniles, refugees, asylees or parolees are exempt from the public charge law.
Immigrants who do qualify for SSI or TANF cash assistance programs include refugees, asylees, parolees, Cuban or Haitian immigrants, lawful permanent residents and some battered spouses and children. Since lawful permanent residents have already adjusted their status, they are not subject to be considered as public charges, and many of the other groups are exempt.
Those who are not exempt and who do receive cash assistance from the US government may still not be eligible for deportation. USCIS only deports public charges in rare cases, and only if the following criteria are met:
- The immigrant has become a public charge within five years of entering the US.
- The immigrant received welfare for reasons that existed before entering the US.
- The immigrant or the immigrant’s sponsor has a legal debt to the government agency that provided the money.
- The government agency has demanded a payment of the debt owed within five years of the immigrant entering the US.
- The immigrant or the immigrant’s sponsor has failed to pay the government agency after the government agency filed a lawsuit and won.
It is difficult to be considered a public charge after being admitted to the US, but USCIS considers many factors before admittance.
If you are a potential immigrant worried about your eligibility, talk to an immigration lawyer before applying for benefits or an adjustment of status!