What is a Public Charge?
A "public charge" is someone who is dependent on the government for long-term care, cash assistance or income maintenance. As an immigrant, you want to avoid becoming a public charge because it is a ground of inadmissibility and deportation. An immigrant who is likely to become a public charge is inadmissible, and ineligible to become a permanent resident of the United States. An immigrant may be deported if he or she becomes a public charge within 5 years of entering the U.S. It is extremely rare for an immigrant to be deported as a public charge.
To keep new immigrants from becoming public charges, the U.S. requires that sponsoring relatives or employers sign a contract (the Affidavit of Support) stating that the sponsored immigrant is not likely to become a public charge. The sponsor also acknowledges that an agency that provides any means-tested benefit to the immigrant may require the immigrant's sponsor to reimburse the agency for the amount of the provided benefit.
How Someone Becomes a Public Charge
If an immigrant receives cash assistance for income maintenance from Social Security Income (SSI), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or any state or local cash assistance programs for income maintenance--commonly referred to as "means-tested benefits"--these could make a non-citizen a public charge. However, in addition to this, you must also meet additional criteria before a public charge can be determined.
USCIS says "before an alien can be denied admission to the United States or denied adjustment of status to legal permanent resident based on public charge grounds, a number of factors must be considered...including: the alien’s age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills. No single factor--other than the lack of an Affidavit of Support, if required--will determine whether an alien is a public charge, including past or current receipt of public cash benefits for income maintenance."
An immigrant can be deported if he or she becomes a public charge within 5 years of entering the U.S. and has refused an agency's request for reimbursement of a cash benefit for income maintenance or costs of institutionalization for long-term care. However, removal proceedings will not be initiated if the immigrant can show that the benefit received was for an issue that did not exist prior to entry into the U.S.
Public charge determination is made on a case-by-case basis and is not an automatic ticket out of the U.S.
How to Avoid Becoming a Public Charge
The key here is to be careful with cash assistance and any long-term care. Some assistance programs may provide cash benefits and this is okay as long as the purpose of the cash assistance is not for income maintenance. For example, if you are given cash as a food stamp benefit instead of the normal paper coupons or e-cards, this would not be considered for public charge purposes because the benefit is not intended for income maintenance.
In contrast, Medicaid is not subject to public charge consideration but if it is used for long-term care such as a nursing home or mental health institution, then it would be used as part of the public charge analysis.
More on the next page: Safe Public Benefits and Ones to Avoid