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Understanding Public Charge

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed June 2023

Some people are worried that getting public benefits will affect their immigration status and stop them from getting a green card or becoming a citizen. Most of the time, it is safe to get the benefits that you and your family are eligible for without it affecting your immigration status. 

This article has general information about getting public benefits and how it may affect your immigration status. You may want to contact an immigration attorney to get advice for your own situation.

Jump to:

What is public charge?
Does public charge apply to me?
Does getting public benefits or health insurance hurt my immigration status?
I need help buying food — what should I know?
I have no income and need cash benefits. If I get SSI, EAEDC, or TAFDC cash benefits, how does this affect public charge?  

 

What is public charge?

Immigration officials use a rule called “public charge” for some immigrants coming to the U.S. and for some immigrants in the U.S. who are applying for a green card for the first time. Immigration may deny your application for a green card, visa, or reentrance into the U.S. if they think you will depend mainly on government support in the future. 

The public charge rule only applies to you if you want to: 

  • get a green card (lawful permanent residence) for the first time or
  • get a visa to enter the U.S. or
  • reenter the U.S. if you are a green card holder who has been out of the country for more than 180 days (6 months).

As part of this public charge rule, immigration officers look at your whole situation. They look at:

  • your income
  • your finances
  • your age
  • your health
  • your family situation
  • your education and skills you have and
  • 2 types of public benefits you may have gotten (see below).

In some cases they also may look at your sponsor’s Affidavit of Support

 

The only 2 types of public benefits that immigration officers look at are:

  1. Long-term institutional care paid for by the government, like a nursing home or mental health institution, and
  2. How much needs-based cash assistance you get for income maintenance. These are benefits you need to have a very low income to qualify for, like SSI, TAFDC and EAEDC. If you get cash benefits on behalf of others, like your U.S. citizen children, that does not count for public charge. 

No other types of benefits matter for public charge. 

 

Does public charge apply to me?

Are you a U.S. citizen?

If yes, public charge does not apply to you.

Do you already have a green card?

Public charge does not apply to you when you renew your green card or apply to become a U.S. citizen unless you leave the country for more than 180 days (6 months).

Do you have TPS, a U or T Visa, Asylum or Refugee status, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or are a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) self-petitioner? Or are you applying for one of these immigration statuses?

If yes, public charge does not apply to you.

Are you in the U.S. and want to apply for a green card for yourself or your family?

Public charge may apply to you if you are the one applying for a green card. It does not apply to you if you are sponsoring a family member. Public charge may apply to your family members who are applying for a green card. Talk to an immigration attorney before submitting any applications to USCIS.

Does your family plan to apply for a green card or visa from outside the U.S.?

U.S. consular offices abroad use different rules in making this decision. Talk to an immigration attorney for advice on your case before making any decisions. If you are sponsoring a family member, public charge does not apply to you.

 

Does getting public benefits or health insurance hurt my immigration status?

No. It is safe to get the health care you need. Even if the public charge rule applies to you, immigration officials should not count getting any of these things against you:

  • MassHealth (if it is not paying for long-term institutional care) 
  • Health Connector subsidies (Advance Premium Tax Credits/ConnectorCare)
  • SNAP (food stamps)
  • WIC
  • School meals
  • P-EBT or Summer EBT
  • Unemployment
  • COVID testing, vaccines, and treatment
  • Housing assistance programs like Section 8 and public housing
  • Cash payments for a specific purpose like home energy assistance or childcare
  • Cash benefits like TAFDC that you get on behalf of a child or other eligible household member
  • Tax refunds like EITC or the Child Tax Credit
  • Community-based services like food banks and shelters

All other types of benefits, except for long-term care or cash benefits you get for yourself, are also safe to get. Talk to an immigration attorney for more information. 

For more information about applying for health insurance:

Visit MAhealthconnector.org or call:
MassHealth, 1-800-841-2900
Health Connector, 1-877-623-6765

 

I need help buying food — what should I know?

It is safe to get food benefits that you and your children are eligible for. Immigration does not look at if you got SNAP, WIC or school meals when applying the “public charge” rule. Getting SNAP or WIC should not hurt your immigration status, and it should not hurt the immigration status of anyone who lives with you. USCIS and USDA posted a letter urging families to apply for SNAP.

The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) runs the SNAP, TAFDC and EAEDC programs. DTA does not report anyone to immigration officials. The only time that DTA would report status information is if you:

  • are under an “order of final deportation,” and
  • apply for SNAP for yourself, and
  • show DTA the final order of deportation as proof.

This rarely, if ever, happens.

Learn more about applying for SNAP → Mass.gov/SNAP  

Learn more about applying for WIC → Mass.gov/WIC

 

I have no income and need cash benefits. If I get SSI, EAEDC, or TAFDC cash benefits, how does this affect public charge?

The public charge rule does not apply to all immigrants. Most of the time, it does not apply to immigrants who meet the eligibility rules for these cash benefits:

  • SSI
  • EAEDC (for some people aged 65 or disabled) or
  • TAFDC (for some pregnant people or families with children)

It is always safe to get benefits on behalf of your U.S. citizen children or other eligible household members.

Even if the public charge rule applies to you, Immigration shouldn’t automatically deny your visa or green card application because you got cash benefits. They are supposed to look at your whole situation when they decide about public charge. Even if you used SSI, EAEDC, or TAFDC in the past, you can show that you won’t need it in the future. For example, you didn’t have a job then but now you do. If you get SSI, EAEDC, or TAFDC and want to apply for a green card, talk to an immigration attorney.

Get Legal Help

Before you talk to USCIS always speak with an Immigration Specialist.

Public Charge Flyers

The Protecting Immigrant Families Coalition created 3 flyers in January 2023: “Does Public Charge Apply to Me?”, “3 Things You Need to Know about Public Charge”, and “123s of Public Charge.”

Download the flyers here.

They are available in: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

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