"Public Charge" is a long-standing feature of U.S. immigration law that may impact families or those with dependents.
What is Public Charge?
By definition, someone who is a "public charge" relies on the U.S. government for financial support. Under immigration law, an alien who is (or is likely to become) a public charge may be barred from entering the United States, and is ineligible to adjust their status (i.e., become a green card holder). The use of government funds alone does not necessarily make one a public charge. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must consider each individual's circumstance when making a public charge determination.
Government Benefits Subject to Public Charge Consideration
In May 1999, the Clinton Administration published a proposed regulation clarifying which government benefits might subject an alien to the public charge consideration. Those benefits are:
- Cash assistance for income maintenance through Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- State or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance, often called 'General Assistance' programs
- Government funds used to offset the cost of long-term care in a nursing home or mental health institution may also invoke public charge considerations
Government Benefits Not Subject to Public Charge Consideration
Benefits not intended for income maintenance are not subject to public charge consideration. Those benefits include:
- Health Care Benefits, including programs such as Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), prenatal care, or other free or low-cost care at clinics, health centers, or other settings (other than long-term care in a nursing home or other institution)
- Food Programs, such as Food Stamps, WIC (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), school meals, or other food assistance
- Other Programs that Do Not Give Cash, such as public housing, disaster relief, Head Start, or job training or counseling
The decision to use public benefits, even those exempt from public charge consideration, should not be made without reasoned thought to the possible consequences. For instance, at the time of visa application, nonimmigrant students and their dependents must demonstrate that they have adequate funds to support themselves during their stay in the United States. A family that used public funds for prenatal care and delivery, for instance, might find it more difficult or even impossible to renew their U.S. entry visa while abroad.
How to Avoid Becoming a Public Charge
- Consider your financial situation prior to bringing dependents to the United States. Spouses and children in F-2 status cannot work, so the F-1 must have adequate funds to support the entire family. While J-2 dependents may apply for work permission, they must first demonstrate that they already have adequate financial support prior to receiving work authorization.
- Purchase health insurance for each family member. Health care in the United States is very expensive. Adequate health insurance can protect you from financial ruin if you or a dependent family member needs medical care in the United States.
- Take stock of your financial situation. You may find that you can re-arrange your budget to identify funds to pay for day care, school lunches, etc. Do not use government benefits if you can afford to pay for your family's expenses.
For additional information, please visit the USCIS Public Charge website.