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: In late 2019, the government issued two new rules related to public charge: one for cases decided in the United States, and the other for cases decided at U.S. consulates and embassies abroad. After litigation initially blocked the rule for cases decided in the United States, both rules took effect February 24, 2020. On July 29, 2020 both rules were blocked by two new court orders. On August 12, 2020, the Second Circuit limited the U.S. injunction to three states: New York, Vermont and Connecticut. USCIS can use the new, 2019 rule to decide applications for green cards in all other states. The injunction blocking the Department of State from applying the 2019 rule in cases decided at consulates and embassies is still in effect. For a timeline of the rules and litigation, click here.

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 the Protecting Immigrant Families Campaign: https://protectingimmigrantfamilies.org/.

COVID-19 and Public Charge: All noncitizens should get the care they need. Previously, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that getting testing and treatment for COVID-19 (including a vaccine if one becomes available) will not trigger public charge. Now that the public charge rules are blocked during the national emergency, use of healthcare, housing and food programs cannot trigger a public charge concern. In its prior announcement, USCIS indicated other factors in a person’s life due to the pandemic, such as job loss and need for further benefits that might impact a public charge decision, would be taken into account (if they are allowed to apply the new rule later on).

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.