If you are sponsoring someone for a family based green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) you will, in most cases, need to fill out an Affidavit of Support for that person. This is ordinarily done using Form I-864, published (and available for free download) by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
You might also be asked to sign a Form I-864 for a friend or relative, as a joint sponsor, in a situation where the main sponsor does not earn enough to support the immigrant alone.
Let's take a look at the legal implications of the Form I-864 Affidavit of Support. Signing one is a serious endeavor that should not be done lightly or with anything less than full trust in the immigrant's intentions. You should also attempt to read all the instructions that come with the form.
If you are the main sponsor, you might not have to fill out the long version of the form. Some sponsors get to use a considerably simpler Form I-864EZ rather than the Form I-864. If you are sponsoring only one immigrant, all your income comes from earnings or a retirement plan are shown on a W-2, and your income alone is enough to satisfy the required Poverty Guidelines levels, be sure to use this easier form! (For information on how much income you will need, see How Much Income an Immigrant's Sponsor Needs to Show According to the Poverty Guidelines.)
The Form I-864 Affidavit of Support is a legally enforceable contract, meaning that either the government or the sponsored immigrant can take the sponsor to court if the sponsor fails to provide adequate support to the immigrant. In fact, the law places more obligations on the sponsor than on the immigrant—the immigrant could decide to quit a job and sue the sponsor for support.
When the government sues the sponsor, it can collect enough money to reimburse any public agencies that have given public benefits to the immigrant. When the immigrant sues, he or she can collect enough money to bring his or her income up to 125% of the amount listed in the U.S. government’s Poverty Guidelines (as shown in the chart in Form I-864P).
The sponsor’s responsibility lasts until the immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen, has earned 40 work quarters credited toward Social Security (a work quarter is about three months, so this means about ten years of work), dies, or permanently leaves the United States. If the immigrant has already been living in the U.S. and earned work credits before applying for the green card, those count toward the 40.
In fact, in marriage-based cases, work done by the U.S. petitioning spouse during the marriage can be counted toward these 40 quarters.
Even a bankruptcy does not necessarily end your I-864 obligations. Although most debts and contractual obligations are dischargeable in bankruptcy, so-called “domestic support obligations” are one exception. Such obligations are defined as alimony, maintenance, or support owed to or recoverable by one’s spouse, former spouse, or child. Under U.S. court decisions—for now—these also include I-864 support obligations.
A sponsor in a marriage-based case remains legally obligated even after a divorce. Yes, a divorced immigrant spouse could decide to sit on a couch all day and sue the former spouse for support. (See Does I-864 Really Force Me to Support Immigrant Ex-Spouse Who Has Plenty of Money or Can Work?) The sponsor might wish to have the immigrant sign a separate contract agreeing not to do this, but it is not clear whether courts would enforce such a contract.
The person petitioning the immigrant and any additional financial sponsor(s) must meet three requirements to serve in this role. Each sponsor must be:
As a practical matter, of course, the sponsor will have to be doing well financially to get the immigrant approved for a green card. Even if the sponsor’s income and assets are lower than the Poverty Guidelines demand, however, he or she must sign an Affidavit of Support. But in a case of low income, the sponsor will have to look for additional sponsors to help the foreign-born person immigrate.
Alternatively, a sponsor might be able to bring his or her income up to the required level—rather than rely on a joint sponsor—by adding the would-be immigrant’s income to his or her own. This is only possible, however, if the would-be immigrant’s income will continue from the same source after he or she gets the green card.
Take particular note of the third requirement above if both the sponsor and the would-be immigrant are presently living overseas. The consulate will require that the sponsor show either that this is a temporary absence and that the sponsor has maintained ties to the U.S., or that he or she intends to reestablish domicile in the U.S. no later than the date that the immigrant is admitted as a permanent resident. Some of the ways the sponsor can show having maintained ties to the U.S. include having paid state or local taxes, kept U.S. bank accounts, kept a permanent U.S. mailing address, or voted in U.S. elections.
Sponsors who try to run away from their obligations will face fines. The U.S. government has anticipated that some sponsors might try to escape their financial obligation by simply moving and leaving no forwarding address. That’s why the law says that the sponsor must report a new address to USCIS on Form I-865 within 30 days of moving. A sponsor who does not comply faces fines of between $250 and $2,000; or $5,000 if the sponsor knows the immigrant has collected need-based public benefits.