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.
Finally, this discussion 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 weigh various positive and negative factors.
These factors 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), as well as a final rule from the Trump Administration that took effect in early 2020):
age (with being younger than 18 or older than 61 seen as negative factors)
health (as indicated by the medical report required when applying for lawful permanent residence, and the applicant's self-reported plan for dealing with anticipated health costs, via health insurance or some other means)
family status and household size (most importantly, whether the immigrant applicant has a spouse, children or other family members to support)
household income and assets, as shown on tax transcripts and documentation supplied by the applicant (excluding any money from illegal activities)
access to support from working family members or friends, most importantly the U.S. petitioner/sponsor
employment history and prospects (including education and work skills, with lack of recent employment seen as a negative), and
past or present receipt of cash assistance from government agencies in the United States.
Immigration officials will consider the applicant's receipt of most cash as well as some non-cash or “special-purpose” cash benefits in the U.S., such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or food stamps; Medicaid (except for pregnant women or people under age 21); and housing vouchers and other rental or housing subsidies. (Note: In some cases, these will be considered only if the benefits were received after the new Trump Administration rules were first implemented in October, 2019.)
Specifically, U.S. immigration authorities will deem a “public charge” to be someone who is currently receiving public benefits in the U.S. or been approved to do so, or has received more than 12 months' worth of one or more designated public benefits within any 36-month period. But they can also consider receipt of benefits less than that, as part of assessing the "totality of circumstances."
Immigration officials are, however, supposed to ignore applicants' receipt of unemployment and health benefits (unless the health benefits involve long-term residence in a nursing home or mental institution).
And they're supposed to ignore participation in school lunch programs, Head Start, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Pell grants and other student aid, job training, tribal benefits, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (D-SNAP) and other emergency relief, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), and Medicare Part D.
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:
asylees and refugees
applicants for green cards under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act of 1997 (NACARA), Cuban Adjustment Act (if paroled into the U.S. as refugees prior to April 1, 1980), or the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA)
registry applicants (seeking green cards based on having lived in the U.S. since before January 1, 1972)
Afghan and Iraqi interpreters or employees of the U.S. government
Parolees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (see 8 C.F.R. § 245.21)
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.)
In the past, an approvable Affidavit of Support was often enough for U.S. immigration authorities to decide that a green card applicant was not a likely public charge. However, the "totality of circumstances" test changes this picture.
You will, in the course of preparing your application materials, have to supply a great deal of financial information, either by preparing USCIS Form I-944 (if you're adjusting status) or DOS Form DS-5540 (if you're consular processing). The more you can do to show you have valuable assets, a good credit score, and so on, the better.
Another option is that USCIS will (per regulations at 8 CFR § 213.1) allow immigrants to post a public charge bond of up to $8,100. This amount will be annually adjusted for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index.
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:
is very elderly
has a serious disease or disability, particularly if there's no source of health insurance
will be living with friends or relatives who are completely dependent on public benefits
has never worked, or
has a long history of receiving public benefits in his or her home country.
If one or more of these facts apply to your case, or you have other cause for concern based on the above discussion, you should talk to a well-qualified immigration attorney.