What It Means to Be a Public Charge

Updated: Nov 5

On August 5th, 2020, a split ruling from a United States federal court moved to lift a previously enacted block on the “public charge” rule, which was prevented from taking effect. This rule seeks to categorize immigrants and residents who are likely to depend on public assistance, and thus prevent their entry and residency in the United States. A rule like this ultimately discourages immigrants and immigrant communities from seeking out any form of state provided benefits. While the Trump Administration may have reasoning for seeking to implement this rule, enforcing this rule could be quite harmful as people depending on need-based programs such Medicaid, Food Stamps, or housing assistance could be forced to decide between access to these basic necessities or maintaining their residency. In a lawsuit against the President himself, state courts and various local non-profit organizations argued that preventing access to healthcare and other essentials during the midst of a pandemic is dangerous and unlawful. 

  • Who is a public charge?

According to the Community Service Society of New York (CSSNY), the public charge admissibility test was originally established in 1883, and sought to define any alien who was most likely to primarily depend on public assistance programs, or in other words, become a public charge. By thoroughly vetting candidates for green cards, visas, or citizenship, it is up to an immigration officer to take financial status, background, and other factors into consideration and determine whether or not an individual would be considered a public charge, and therefore be ineligible for entry or naturalization. A history of reliance on public assistance and other financial factors play a large role in determining an immigrants future in the United States. Moreover, critics of the rule argue that any level of reliance on public assistance programs does not necessarily mean an immigrant will always predominantly depend on these programs. For instance, an individual could depend on Medicaid programs for things such as access to Coronavirus testing, or other forms of healthcare, yet still remain self-sufficient. Likewise, penalizing immigrants who had no choice but to look to the government for assistance could be an unfair method of determining who is eligible for residency or citizenship.


  • What could make somebody considered a public charge?

Dependence on specific benefits, at any capacity, will indicate a person as likely to become a public charge. A history of dependence on programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), certain forms of Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP, also known as Food Stamps), and Section 8 Housing Assistance would most likely make an applicant deemed a public charge. However, specific forms of assistance are exempted from consideration, such as any disaster relief programs, various student and mortgage loans, some forms of healthcare assistance, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Additionally, refugees, asylees, juveniles, and Green Card holders who received any forms of assistance prior to the passing of the new Public Charge Rule are also exempt from consideration. Nevertheless, if a Green Card holder were to leave the country for more than six months, this exemption would no longer apply, and they could be considered a public charge upon return (CCSNY).

  • What does this mean for immigrant communities? 

Enforcement of this rule means that lower-income immigrant groups must seek out other forms of assistance, which could be rather difficult to find. While many organizations exist to support and uplift immigrant communities, many are not as effective as programs provided by the state such as Food Stamps or healthcare programs. During the pandemic, all individuals should have access to things like testing, medicine, and healthcare professionals. Preventing specific groups from accessing these forms of aid could not only be harmful for these communities, but exacerbate the spread of novel Coronavirus.  At this time, the block on the public charge rule is still in effect and the I-944 form is still not required, but this is subject to change in the future.



****Update: As of September 22, 2020, the Trump administration has reinstated the Public Charge rule and USCIS will be applying the public charge test to all future and pending green card applications filed after February 24, 2020.



****Update: NOVEMBER 5th, 2020 

On the eve of the election, a federal judge in Chicago ordered the Trump Administration to vacate the rule that would deny green cards to immigrants who use federal public benefits, like food stamps or housing vouchers. Judge Gary Feinerman of the U.S. District in Chicago cited it violated the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs the way regulations are produced and rolled out. Also, Judge Feinerman said the rule of self-sufficiency has no basis as it fails to consider the consequences of its implementation. While the Trump administration is expected to appeal the decision, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services will adhere and comply with the new ruling. The public charge rule was President Trump’s more aggressive moves to block immigrants from accessing vital services like health care and ensuring an immigration system based on self-sufficiency rather than reunification. This case has the potential to end up before the Supreme Court.  

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Marimow, A. (2020, August 06). Court sides with Trump administration effort to impose 'public charge' rule. Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/legal-issues/block-on-trump-administration-public-charge-rule-lifted-by-court/2020/08/05/68f23426-d74f-11ea-930e-d88518c57dcc_story.html

Public Charge Rule Changes, Explained. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.cssny.org/pages/public-charge-immigration-explainer

Public Charge. (2020, August 21). Retrieved September 10, 2020, from https://www.uscis.gov/green-card/green-card-processes-and-procedures/public-charge

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