As a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR or green card holder), you have access to various forms of public benefits such as SSI, Social Security, TANF, and more (described in the article “What Public Benefits Can a Green Card Holder Receive?”).
For the most part, receipt of such public benefits is not a problem for either your status as a green card holder or your eventual eligibility for U.S. citizenship (naturalization). For more information about public benefits and naturalization, see "Will Receiving Public Benefits Hurt Your Chances of U.S. Citizenship?"
How Travel Can Trigger Problems After Receipt of Public Benefits
But receiving certain public benefits can cause problems under certain circumstances having to do with travel, namely when an LPR leaves the U.S., remains away for more than 180 days, and then seeks to return.
The issue arises when immigration officials at the border, airport, or other port of entry inspect the returning permanent resident. If the LPR has been outside of the U.S. for 180 days or less, the border official is usually not supposed to treat the person as an “applicant for admission,” and therefore should not apply the grounds of inadmissibility described in the article “Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out.”
But after a permanent resident has been outside of the U.S. for more than 180 days and returns, the border official will treat that person as an applicant for admission. That means that all of the standard grounds of inadmissibility apply, including “public charge.” A person is considered a “public charge” if he or she is likely to become dependent on public benefits.
The “public charge” ground of inadmissibility does not, however, apply to a few types of permanent residents, including those who received their green card as refugees or asylees, Amerasian special immigrants, and in some cases under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), the Nigaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), or the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act
It is also important to note that there are situations in which a permanent resident will be considered an applicant for admission even after having been outside of the U.S. for 180 days or less. For example, a permanent resident would be an applicant for admission if he or she “engaged in illegal activity” while outside the U.S., even if the person was gone for just seven days. In such cases, public charge and other grounds of inadmissibility could apply and returning to the U.S. might be impossible or very difficult.
Receiving Public Benefits Does Not Always Lead to Finding of Public Charge
The “public charge” ground of inadmissibility requires that anyone who is or is likely to become a public charge not be admitted into the United States. Immigration officials do not, however, consider receipt of public benefits as an automatic trigger of the “public charge” bar to admission.
Instead, the immigration officials will look at all of the factors that are relevant to the case, including the applicant’s:
age and health
access to assistance from other working family members
employability (education and work skills).
Immigration officials are also supposed to ignore the receipt of certain types of benefits, such as most non-cash benefits, unemployment, and health benefits (unless the health benefits involve long-term residence in a nursing home or mental institution), when making a public charge decision.