What is public charge?

“Public charge” is a ground of inadmissibility. Grounds of inadmissibility are reasons that a person could be denied a green card, visa, or admission into the United States. In deciding whether to grant some applicants a green card or a visa, an immigration officer must decide whether that person is likely to become dependent on certain government benefits in the future, which would make them a “public charge.” It is not a test that applies to everyone, not even to all those applying for green cards. For an overview of public charge law, click here.

UPDATE: The Department of Homeland Security can still apply the new public charge rule for cases decided within the United States. A court order from December 2, 2020 would block DHS from applying the new public charge rule in 18 states and Washington, D.C., but this order is not yet final.

The Department of State is currently blocked (since July 29, 2020) from applying its new public charge rule at U.S. consulates and embassies abroad.

See below for more details. For a timeline of the rules and litigation, click here.

On December 2, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld preliminary injunctions blocking the government from applying the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) public charge rule in all the regions of the U.S. represented by the plaintiffs in the cases challenging the new rule, but this decision is not yet final. The injunction would block the government from enforcing the new public charge rule in California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Washington State. This would mean that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) would be prevented from applying the new rule in those areas, even though it could apply the new rule elsewhere. However, for now, USCIS may continue to apply the new rule, including requiring submission of Form I-944. It is important to watch for updates on how the agency will implement this injunction and whether they will challenge it.

The Department of State is still blocked (since July 29, 2020) from applying the new public charge rule in cases decided at consulates and embassies. Embassies and consulates have not been open for routine processing during much of the pandemic. As consulates begin to process cases, they cannot apply the enjoined DOS rule related to public charge, the health insurance proclamation from October 2019, or prior guidance issued in January 2018 related to public charge.

Please check back regularly for updates. For more information on the injunctions and pending litigation, see also the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign: https://protectingimmigrantfamilies.org/.

COVID-19 and Public Charge: All noncitizens should get the care they need. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has announced that getting testing and treatment for COVID-19 (including a vaccine if one becomes available) will not trigger public charge. In its announcement, USCIS also indicated that it would take into account other factors in a person’s life due to the pandemic, such as job loss and a need for further benefits, that might impact a public charge decision.

Here are a few important points regarding public charge:

  • Public charge does not apply to all immigrants. This law mainly impacts those seeking permanent resident status through family member petitions.

  • Many immigrant categories are exempt from the public charge ground of inadmissibility, even if they might be applying for status or a green card. U visa holders, T visa holders, asylees, refugees, and many more categories are exempt.
  • Public charge laws do not apply in the naturalization process, through which lawful permanent residents apply to become U.S. citizens.