Strategies When an Immigrant's Sponsor's Income and Assets Are Too Low

What if the income and assets of the U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioner who's attempting to sponsor a family immigrant aren’t enough to meet the required levels according to U.S. Poverty Guidelines? Here are ways to make up the financial shortfall.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

What if the combined income and assets of the U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioner who is attempting to sponsor a family immigrant isn't enough to meet the required minimum levels according to U.S. Poverty Guidelines? Below are some possibilities for making up the financial shortfalls (some difficult, some less so), such as:

  • the obvious measure of the U.S. petitioner finding a new job
  • obtaining household members' official agreement to share in the sponsorship obligation
  • asking someone outside the household to become a "joint sponsor," and
  • arranging for the immigrant to start working in the United States (or at least get a job offer).

Immigrant's U.S. Sponsor Finds a New Job

If you don't wish to rely on friends and relatives, the U.S. citizen sponsor (or the immigrant, if already living in the United States with a legal right to work), might have to find an additional job or a job with better pay and benefits. Obviously, improving one's financial situation will not be easy. It could mean a long job search, moving to another city, dropping out of school for a while, or giving up enjoyable work or time with the children.

But here's the reason this advice isn't totally crazy: After you are approved for your green card, there is no obligation that you or your spouse stay with the new job. USCIS will not send inspectors to your or your spouse's workplace or check up on you. If you and your family can survive on less than the U.S. government thinks is possible, that's your choice—so long as you do not receive need-based government assistance (go on "welfare") for the first five years after green card approval. (See What Public Benefits Can a Green Card Holder Receive?)

The way U.S. immigration law works, you likely wouldn't face any repercussions for post-approval reductions in your family's income until and unless the immigrant tried to apply for need-based public assistance. The immigrant would probably be denied the benefits—or forced to pay them back later.

If you don't find out until the visa or green card interview that the case cannot be approved without showing more financial support, you might be given a time limit within which to send in new evidence. The time limit could approach all too quickly while the sponsor looks for a better job, health insurance, or other source of family support. If the deadline is about to arrive and you have nothing new to show, at least send a letter saying that you are still interested in pursuing the green card application. Ask for more time to provide the requested documents and evidence.

If both of you are living in the United States, it is especially important to send such a letter, because once USCIS denies the application, it will transfer the case to the immigration court for removal proceedings (if the immigrant doesn't have a legal status that remains valid, for instance an unexpired I-94 based on a visa).

The consulates and USCIS will typically give a total of six months to a year after the green card interview before declaring the application dead. You would then have to start over if still interested in pursuing a green card.

Ask the U.S. Petitioner's Household Members to Agree to Help Out

If the U.S. sponsor cannot meet the financial minimum alone, the first step is to see if another person living in or a financial member of the same household in the United States is willing to contribute income and assets to the mix (and sign an official agreement to this effect). A household member is someone who:
  • was listed as a dependent or joint filer on the U.S. sponsor's latest tax return, or
  • is related to and shares a residence (home) with the sponsor.

The household member would agree to support the immigrant by signing a supplemental Form I-864A. One nice thing about using a household member's income is that it has to be only enough to make up the shortfall in the main sponsor's income.

However, the potential household joint sponsors should realize that if for any reason the main sponsor doesn't support the immigrant, the joint sponsors can be made to provide the full support amount. (The form itself supposedly warns the signer with the following legal jargon: "I, the Household Member, … Agree to be jointly and severally liable for payment of any and all obligations owed by the sponsor ….") It's a serious and long-term obligation (usually up to ten years), which some household members might reasonably refuse to take on.

Find an Independent Joint Sponsor Who Will Agree to Help Support the Immigrant If Need Be

If no one in the sponsor's household can help boost the sponsor's income and assets, you can look for a joint sponsor outside the household. Each joint sponsor needs to meet the basic sponsorship requirements. An independent joint sponsor must also be pretty well off financially.

Unlike household joint sponsors, joint sponsors who live outside the household will need to earn enough to cover the entire Poverty Guidelines minimum requirement for their own household and for the incoming immigrant or immigrants (if, for example, children will also be coming). The joint sponsor cannot simply make up the main sponsor's shortfall. It is as though they were the sole sponsor.

In fact, they must sign a separate Form I-864 Affidavit of Support. Like the household joint sponsor, an independent sponsor can be held 100% responsible for supporting the immigrant.

If there is more than one incoming immigrant, there can be up to two joint sponsors. This can be helpful, for example, where the incoming immigrants include an adult and two children, and neither of the joint sponsors earn enough to meet the minimum Poverty Guidelines for all three immigrants. As long as one of these joint sponsors earns enough to meet the Poverty Guidelines minimum for one immigrant, and the other joint sponsor earns enough to meet the Poverty Guidelines minimum for the other two immigrants, the I-864 requirements are met.

Although independent joint sponsors must meet the entire Poverty Guidelines minimum on their own, they at least will not be responsible for supporting people in the immigrant's household other than the immigrant(s). To meet the Poverty Guidelines requirements as a joint sponsor, don't just add up the number of people in the two households. Instead, add only the number of people in the joint sponsor's household plus the number of new immigrants.

Immigrant Gets a Job Offer or a Job in the United States

Technically, a U.S. job offer for the immigrant is not supposed to count when U.S. immigration authorities assess the U.S. sponsor's ability to support the immigrant (as well as members of her own household) at a level that meets the 125% of Poverty Guidelines minimum (or 100% for active military members).

All that said, if an immigrant who is living overseas does receive a job offer with a set salary in the United States, it's a good idea to provide documentation of this during the application process. If your case is on the edge, it might tip the decision maker toward recognizing that the immigrant is truly unlikely to become a public charge, and then approving the immigrant visa or green card rather than demanding more documentation or an additional sponsor.

If the immigrant is already in the United States, for example on a K-1 fiancé visa, then the sooner they can obtain a job and begin working, the better. Of course, this can't be done legally without a work permit, which in the case of a K-1 visa holder you likely won't be able to obtain before marrying and turning in the adjustment of status application. But it's okay to bring proof of new income sources such as this to the green card interview at the USCIS office.

Getting Legal Help

Given the challenges of your situation, you could make your life easier by hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your family visa case. Although it's an added expense, the attorney can analyze the facts of your situation and spot any potential ways to make the income situation look better, prepare the paperwork, and monitor the progress toward approval. This can save you delays and setbacks.

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