Which Public Benefit Programs Can Make Immigrant Inadmissible

Receiving public benefits may 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.

Who Needs to Worry About Inadmissibility as a Public Charge

Before getting worried that you’ve received one of the types of benefits that create inadmissibility, it’s worth doublechecking that you’re even among the categories of immigrants for whom this could be a problem. 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.

Even people who need to extend their nonimmigrant stay or change nonimmigrant status can be affected. They will need to show that they have not received public benefits over the designated threshold since obtaining nonimmigrant status.

Why Receiving Public Benefits Can Be a Problem for an Immigration Application

Among the ways someone can become a likely “public charge” and therefore be found inadmissible to the United States is to have received one or more public benefits while living in the United States. Let's take a closer look at the details.

Receiving Benefits for Less Than a Minimum Time Not a Problem

A month or two of receiving public benefits won’t hurt your immigration application. The issue arises if you received any of a listed set of benefits for more than twelve months in total within any 36-month period. This means, for example, that receiving two different benefits in one month counts as two months of benefits.

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 U.S. permanent residence or a change of status in the U.S.:

  • Supplemental Security Income  
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families 
  • any federal, state, local, or tribal cash benefit programs for income maintenance (often called general assistance in your state’s context, but which may exist under other names)  
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) 
  • Section 8 Housing Assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program 
  • Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation) 
  • public housing, and 
  • federally funded Medicaid (with certain exclusions). 

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

These programs are not considered as factors in deciding who is a public charge, and will therefore not impact your immigration application:

  • emergency medical assistance  
  • disaster relief  
  • national school lunch programs  
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children  
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program  
  • subsidies for foster care and adoption  
  • government-subsidized student and mortgage loans 
  • energy assistance 
  • food pantries and homeless shelters; and 
  • Head Start programs.    

Additionally, certain Medicaid benefits will not be factored in, if they were:

  • for the treatment of an “emergency medical condition”  
  • provided in connection with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
  • school-based services or benefits provided to people who are at or below the oldest age eligible for secondary education under state or local law
  • for non-citizens under the age of 21, or  
  • for pregnant women and women within the 60-day period after the last day of the pregnancy. 

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. 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 be put on unpaid leave or laid off.

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