Determination that a person is a “public charge,” under U.S. immigration law has been used as grounds for inadmissibility and deportation of immigrants for many years, although deportations on public charge grounds are very rare because the standards are very strict. U.S. immigration officials use the term “public charge” in reference to a person who is considered primarily dependent on the government for assistance, specifically cash assistance in order to maintain an income or provide for institutionalization for long-term care.
Although an individual who is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible to the United States and ineligible to become a legal permanent resident, receiving public benefits does not automatically make an individual a public charge.
The following is a list of cash assistance for income maintenance, which can be considered by immigration officials, and disqualify an immigrant, when determining whether an immigrant will be a public charge:
- Supplemental Security Income;
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF);
- State and local cash benefit programs that are for the purpose of income maintenance (often called “General Assistance” but which may exist under other names);
- Long-term care benefits under Medicaid.
However, there are several other program which provide various assistance, and are not considered as a cash benefit for income maintenance purposes, such as:
- All government health center programs;
- Educational benefits (including Head Start);
- Prenatal care;
- Food Stamps;
- Child care assistance;
- Energy assistance, such as the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP);
- Job training programs.
Eligible non-citizens can use all of the services listed above without fear that use of these services will be considered evidence of public charge status. It should also be noted that the totality of the circumstances are taken into account when the USCIS is deciding whether an immigrant is likely to become a public charge. These factors may include the alien’s age, health, family status, assets, financial status, resources, education and skills. No single factor will disqualify an immigrant from becoming a lawful permanent residence, as discretion is used, but the longer an alien has received cash income-maintenance benefits in the past, as well as the greater the amount of benefits, the stronger the implication that the alien is likely to become a public charge.