Immigrants and Public Benefits

How to Avoid Becoming a Public Charge

Doctor talking with mother and daughter in room
Immigrants are eligible to receive medical benefits. Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

A "public charge" is someone who is dependent on the government for long-term care, cash assistance or income maintenance. As an immigrant, you want to avoid becoming a public charge because it is grounds for inadmissibility and deportation. An immigrant who is likely to become a public charge is inadmissible and ineligible to become a permanent resident of the United States. An immigrant may be deported if he or she becomes a public charge within 5 years of entering the U.S. It is extremely rare for an immigrant to be deported as a public charge.

To keep new immigrants from becoming public charges, the U.S. requires that sponsoring relatives or employers sign a contract (the Affidavit of Support) stating that the sponsored immigrant is not likely to become a public charge. The sponsor also acknowledges that an agency that provides any means-tested benefit to the immigrant may require the immigrant's sponsor to reimburse the agency for the amount of the provided benefit.

How Someone Becomes a Public Charge

If an immigrant receives cash assistance for income maintenance from Social Security Income (SSI), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or any state or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance--commonly referred to as "means-tested benefits"--these could make a non-citizen a public charge. However, in addition to this, you must also meet additional criteria before a public charge can be determined.

USCIS says "before an alien can be denied admission to the United States or denied adjustment of status to legal permanent resident based on public charge grounds, a number of factors must be considered...including: the alien’s 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 alien is a public charge, including past or current receipt of public cash benefits for income maintenance."

An immigrant can be deported if he or she becomes a public charge within 5 years of entering the U.S. and has refused an agency's request for reimbursement of a cash benefit for income maintenance or costs of institutionalization for long-term care. However, removal proceedings will not be initiated if the immigrant can show that the benefit received was for an issue that did not exist prior to entry into the U.S.

Public charge determination is made on a case-by-case basis and is not an automatic ticket out of the U.S.

How to Avoid Becoming a Public Charge

The key here is to be careful with cash assistance and any long-term care. Some assistance programs may provide cash benefits and this is okay as long as the purpose of the cash assistance is not for income maintenance. For example, if you are given cash as a food stamp benefit instead of the normal paper coupons or e-cards, this would not be considered for public charge purposes because the benefit is not intended for income maintenance.

In contrast, Medicaid is not subject to public charge consideration but if it is used for long-term care such as a nursing home or mental health institution, then it would be used as part of the public charge analysis.

Safe Public Benefits and Ones to Avoid

To avoid becoming a public charge, immigrants should avoid benefits that provide cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care. The type of benefit you may use without becoming a public charge is dependent on your immigration status.

Each program will have its own eligibility qualifications that must be met in order to participate in the program or receive benefits. Eligibility may also differ from state to state. It is important to check your eligibility with each agency.

Public Benefits for New Immigrants Applying for Permanent Residence

USCIS states that the following benefits may be used without a public charge penalty by legal immigrants who have not yet received their green card:

  • Health Care Benefits such as emergency Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), prenatal care, or other free or low-cost medical care at clinics, health centers, or other settings (other than long-term care in a nursing home or similar institution)
  • Food Programs such as WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), school meals, or other food assistance
  • Non-Cash Programs such as public housing, child care, energy assistance, disaster relief, Head Start, or job training or counseling

New immigrants should stay away from the following benefits to avoid a public charge determination. USCIS will consider your participation in the following when deciding whether or not to issue a green card:

  • Cash Welfare such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and state and local cash assistance programs for income maintenance (often called "state General Assistance")
  • Institutionalization for long-term care, such as residing in a nursing home or mental health facility at government expense

Public Benefits for Green Card Holders

Legal permanent residents--green card holders--will not lose their status through public charge by using the following provided by USCIS:

  • Health Care Benefits such as emergency Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), prenatal care, or other free or low-cost medical care at clinics, health centers, or other settings (other than long-term care in a nursing home or similar institution)
  • Food Programs such as Food Stamps, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), school meals, or other food assistance
  • Non-Cash Programs such as public housing, child care, energy assistance, disaster relief, Head Start, or job training or counseling
  • *Cash Welfare such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and state and local cash assistance programs for income maintenance (often called "state General Assistance")
  • *Institutionalization for long-term care, such as residing in a nursing home or mental health facility at government expense

*Take note: A green card holder who leaves the U.S. for more than 6 months at one time may be asked questions upon re-entry to determine if they are a public charge. At this point, use of cash welfare or long-term care will be carefully considered in deciding admissibility.

Source: USCIS