What is public charge and how will the new rule affect me?

Are you applying for a US visa, an extension to a visa, a green card, or change of status? This page will help you understand the new public charge rule. It will tell you what has changed and how that change may affect you.

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Photo: iStock/Beto

Public charge update – March 2020: USCIS says that healthcare for coronavirus is not a public charge.

If you need to use public benefits to get medical care for COVID-19 or other infectious diseases, it will be not be counted against you in your immigration application. You can read more details in English or in Spanish.

Who or what is a public charge?

Many people in the USA get help from the government for basic needs. Public charge is the term used for a person who is receiving government help, which is sometimes called “public benefits.”

The Department of Homeland Security has made a new rule. It is called the public charge rule

What does this mean for immigrants and visa applicants?

The public charge rule says that you may be denied a change of status, a green card, or an extension to your visa if you receive or have received public benefits or if officials think you will receive them in the future. For people overseas, the rule means you may not be allowed to come to the USA if officials believe you will rely on public benefits.

What important facts I should know about the public charge rule?

Here are some important things you should know:

  • The public charge rule does not apply to refugees, asylees, or victims of trafficking, domestic violence and other serious crimes.
  • The public charge rule does not apply to green card holders (unless they leave the USA for over 180 days and then try to come back into the country).
  • Most people applying for a visa, change of status, or green card do not qualify for the public benefits listed in the rule anyway.
  • Immigration officials must look at all your circumstances when they decide if you are likely to become a public charge in the future. You have a right to show why you are unlikely to become a public charge. For example, you can show your assets, your skills, your good health, and your employment record.
  • Many benefits cannot be considered in the decision. WIC, CHIP, school lunches, food banks, shelters, and child care assistance are not included. Healthcare programs used by children and pregnant women are not included. Health, housing, nutrition and other non-cash benefits provided by state and local governments are not included.
  • If you are or if you become a legal permanent resident (green card holder), and then you use public benefits, it could make it harder to sponsor your other family members to come to the USA. This is because your family members will need to pass the public charge test, and so the government will look at sponsors to see if they can support new family members.

Read more details in many languages about your rights and the public charge rule from Protecting Immigrant Families.

This information was prepared with thanks to Protecting Immigrant Families and CLINIC.

What are public benefits?

Public benefits are money and other help that is paid for using US taxes, or public money. These benefits can take many different forms. A public benefit can mean cash for low-income families. But it can also mean benefits that are not cash. Public benefits include SNAP (food stamps), housing vouchers or other housing assistance, and healthcare paid for by the government, such as Medicaid. They may cover long-term care, for example in a home for disabled or elderly people.

What does “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” mean?

Inadmissibility means not allowed. Grounds are reasons for something. So “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds” means a person may not be allowed to come to the USA if there is reason to believe he or she will rely on public benefits. It also means people already in the USA may be denied a change of status, a green card, or an extension to their visa if they receive or have received public benefits or if officials think they will receive them in the future.

How has this changed with the new rule?

In the past, “public charge inadmissibility” was based on cash benefits. Now, inadmissibility will be based on non-cash public benefits, too, such as food stamps and other benefits listed above.

Some public benefits will not be included in the new rule: for example, school lunches, children’s health insurance, Head Start, emergency medical care and disaster relief will not be included. You can read information from USCIS about the new changes.

Are any benefits allowed before a person is considered a public charge?

Some amount of public benefits are allowed. But you cannot receive more than 12 months total benefits in a 36-month period. Each benefit counts separately. So if you receive rental assistance as well as food stamps in the same month, that counts as two months of benefits.

What else affects the decision about whether someone is or will be a public charge?

DHS officers can look at other facts to decide (make a determination) about your case. Officers will consider your health and age. They also look at your education and income. If you have private health insurance, that will count in your favor. If you are unemployed, that will count against you.

Applicants filing for a change of status will be asked to make a declaration of self-sufficiency (Form I-944). This form says the applicant can support himself or herself without public benefits.

Who does the new rule apply to?

The new rule applies to non-US citizens who are applying to come to the USA. It also includes people already in the United States who apply to change their status or extend their stay. It may apply to you if you are listed on someone’s else benefits, even you are not getting benefits directly yourself.

Who does the rule not apply to?

The rule does not apply to US citizens or legal permanent residents (green card holders). It does not apply to refugees, to asylees, and Afghanis and Iraqis with special immigrant visas.

The information on this page comes from USCIS and other trusted sources. It is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.