One of the most common barriers to getting a green card is what's called "inadmissibility," as described in Top Reasons Your Green Card Might Be Denied. Some of the grounds of inadmissibility seem obvious and understandable. For example, it's easy to see why a record of having committed certain crimes can keep you from getting a green card (unless you qualify for a waiver, as described in When Is a Waiver of Inadmissibility Available for a Green Card Applicant?).
But other grounds of inadmissibility are less obvious, and easy to overlook. For example, you can be found inadmissible and denied a green card as a likely "public charge," for which there is no waiver. (This is also the reason that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not grant fee waivers for Form I-485, the form used to adjust status in the United States.)
However, as described below, the public charge ground of inadmissibility is possible to overcome. Also, some categories of green card applicants, such as asylees and refugees, are not subject to the public charge rules, as discussed below.
Finally, this article applies only to people getting their first green card, not to those going from conditional to permanent residence or simply renewing an existing green card.
A green card applicant may be found inadmissible as a likely public charge if it is more likely than not that, in the future, the person will depend on public benefits to meet basic needs. Of course, immigration officials can't predict the future, but they're expected to look at the totality of the applicant's circumstances and make a determination as to the person's financial responsibility.
The main factors to consider include the following, per federal statute at I.N.A. § 212(a)(4)(B)(i) or 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(4)(B)(i), and the government's 1999 Interim Field Guidance.
Past receipt of cash income-maintenance benefits does not automatically make an applicant inadmissible as a likely public charge, but such history can be taken into account in this prospective analysis. It can be overcome by, for example, showing that the applicant has full-time, lawful employment.
Having received benefits under any of the following programs could negatively impact your application for a U.S. visa or green card:
The Trump administration attempted to expand this list with new regulations, but U.S. federal courts put a stop to that.
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 U.S. immigration application:
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."
Most immigrants will have to clear the public charge hurdle, whether their application is based on a family relationship or employment. However, many types of green card applicants are not subject to the public charge rules, including:
See 8 C.F.R. § 212.23(a) for complete government regulations on this.
If you are applying for a green card based on a family relationship, the petitioner (your U.S. relative) is legally required to submit an Affidavit of Support on your behalf (Form I-864), promising to support you at a level that's higher than listed in the U.S. Poverty Guidelines. (See Filling Out Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Act) and consider filing an additional I-864, as described in, Strategies When an Immigrant's Sponsor's Income Is Too Low.)
An approvable Affidavit of Support can be enough for U.S. immigration authorities to decide that a green card applicant is not a likely public charge.
Still, both positive and negative factors will be considered in your application for a U.S. green card. The more an applicant can do to show possession of valuable assets and job prospects, the better. You can, for example, assist the immigration officers in making their determination by submitting a letter of explanation for any negative factors and highlighting any positive ones that your paperwork doesn't fully show.
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. You'd want to attach any relevant supporting documentation, such as your employer's notification that you'd been put on unpaid leave or laid off.
A green card applicant who exhibits any of the following characteristics is particularly at risk for being labelled a likely public charge, even after submitting an approvable I-864 Affidavit of Support. The green card applicant:
If one or more of these factors described above apply to your case, or you have other cause for concern based on this discussion, you should talk to a well-qualified, consult an experienced immigration attorney.