CIANA Explains: What is Public Charge?


Photo: Elvert Barnes

As part of a multi-week series, CIANA’s legal and outreach team will discuss all you need to know about topics affecting immigrants and what you can do to help.

What is Public Charge?

On October 10th, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed to change the current definition of inadmissibility on the grounds of public charge. DHS posted its proposal on the federal register and is asking the public to submit formal comments by December 10th, before the new rule becomes official. The proposed rule, if published, will not only make it more difficult for non-citizens to enter the US legally, but will also close the pathway to citizenship for non-citizens who are receiving public benefits. Additionally, the rule could affect the well-being of many immigrant families who would avoid accessing public benefit programs out of fear of not being able to obtain citizenship.

The public charge rule was designed to identify people who, if admitted into the country, would grow to primarily depend on the federal government as a source of support. If someone is deemed likely to be a public charge, the US government could deny them admission into the country or green card status. Historically, the list of what would deem a person inadmissible was fairly short, which allowed immigrant families in need to seek healthcare, housing, and nutrition assistance without fear of affecting their immigration cases.

Currently, a person’s use of the following public benefits can be used to consider someone’s likelihood to be a public charge: SSI, TANF, state and local cash assistance, and long-term institutional care at the government’s expense. The proposed rule issued by DHS last month would expand this list.

In addition to the use of the public benefits already included in the current definition of public charge, the new rule proposes to include the use of non-emergency Medicaid, SNAP or food stamps, Medicare Part D Low Income Subsidy, and Housing Assistance. Along with expanding the list of public benefits that would deem an individual inadmissible on the grounds of public charge, the proposed rule also increases new income thresholds for households trying to prove that they will not be a public charge. The rule would require a family of four to make at least $63,000 a year, or in other words, for a couple with no children to make $41,150 to not to be considered a public charge, or 250% above the federal federal poverty guidelines. The evaluation would also consider other criteria such as a person’s age, health, and education when evaluating someone’s likelihood to be a public charge.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), if this new rule is published, the percentage of non-citizens using public benefits that would label an individual as a public charge would expand from the current policy rate of 3% to 47%. The proposed rule would also disproportionately affect family-based immigrants, since employment-based immigrants are more likely to have job offers and greater educational attainment.

Who will the proposed rule affect?