Which Public Benefit Programs Can Make Immigrant Inadmissible

Past receipt of public benefits could lead to an inadmissibility problem when applying for a green card, depending on which benefits you received, how long you received them, and your personal financial resources.

Worried about your eligibility to become a U.S. legal permanent resident because you have received government benefits in the U.S., perhaps while briefly out of work? You could be worrying unnecessarily, but it's definitely worth doing further research.

There are times in life that one has to ask for help, and there are some types of government assistance legally available to non-citizens. On the other hand, many categories of green card applicants whose income or assets might not ultimately be enough to cover their expenses can be found inadmissible to the U.S. as a likely "public charge."

Whether past benefits that you received leads to an inadmissibility problem when applying for a green card depends primarily on:

  • which public benefits you received
  • how long a time you received the benefits for, and
  • your other personal circumstances and financial resources.

Again, nothing is automatic. The focus for the U.S. government will be to look forward, and examine what the future is likely to hold for you. Past receipt of public benefits can be overcome by showing good financial prospects. You will not be expected to pay any lawfully received benefits back, either.

For details on the government's approach, see the Department of Justice's 1999 memo on the matter; which the Trump Administration tried to override with new regulations, which became the subject of lawsuits and court injunctions. The Biden Administration subsequently brought the 1999 guidance back into force.

What If It Was a Family Member Who Received the Public Benefits?

If your spouse, child, or other dependent was the one to actually receive cash benefits in the U.S., this will be considered in the public charge determination only if your family relies on those benefits as its sole means of financial support.

Which Type of Immigrant Applicants Need to Worry About Inadmissibility as a Public Charge

Before getting worried that you've received public benefits that could lead to an inadmissibility finding, it's worth doublechecking that you're even among the categories of immigrants for whom "public charge" is a consideration. See Who May Be Found Inadmissible, and Denied a Green Card for Income Reasons, as a Likely Public Charge for more information and some exceptions.

The truth of the matter is, however, that most categories of applicants for immigrant visas or green cards, including those applying for family-based or employment-based visas, will have to deal with the public charge ground of inadmissibility.

List of Public Benefit Programs That Are Considered a Potential Bar

 Having received benefits under any of the following programs could negatively impact your application for a U.S. visa or green card:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance
  • State and local cash assistance programs that provide benefits for income maintenance (often called ‘‘General Assistance'' programs), and
  • Programs (including Medicaid) supporting aliens who are institutionalized for long-term care e.g., in a nursing home or mental health institution).

The Trump administration attempted to expand this list with its new regulations, but again, U.S. federal courts put a stop to that.

List of Public Benefits That Will Not Bar U.S. Immigration

The following types of non-cash programs are not considered as factors in deciding who is a public charge, and will therefore not impact your immigration application:

  • Medicaid and other health insurance and health services, other than support for long-term institutional care.
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
  • Nutrition and supplemental or emergency food assistance programs, such school meals, Food Stamps, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
  • Housing benefits.
  • Child care services.
  • Energy assistance.
  • Emergency disaster relief.
  • Foster care and adoption assistance.

IMPORTANT NOTE REGARDING CORONAVIRUS: USCIS states that people with symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) should "seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services," and that this "will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future Public Charge analysis."

How to Offset Receipt of Public Benefits by Showing Other Factors

Fortunately, receiving public benefits does not automatically mean you are likely at any time in the future to become a public charge. U.S. immigration officers will look at many factors, including your age, health, family status, assets and resources, education/skills, prospective immigration status and, if you're applying through family, the Affidavit of Support (Form I-864) your family petitioner files for you.

Both positive and negative factors will be considered in your application for a U.S. green card.

You can assist the officers in making this determination by submitting a letter of explanation for any negative factors. In fact, USCIS specifically recommended during the COVID-19 pandemic that applicants who live and work in an area where social distancing, quarantine, or other such restrictions are in place, or whose employer, school, or university has shut down operations for disease-prevention purposes, include such a statement. Make sure to explain how you've been affected, and why you've possibly had to turn to public benefits.

Attach any relevant supporting documentation, such as your employer's notification that you'd been put on unpaid leave or laid off.

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