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Will Immigrants Have to Choose Between Public Benefits and Citizenship?

Certificate of US Citizenship, social security card, declaration of intention, and passenger manifest with red, white and blue ribbon
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Under federal immigration law, the government may deny someone a visa if, "at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge." What's a public charge? Anyone, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.

Of course, government subsistence can take many forms, and the Trump Administration issued an update to the public charge rule that would allow the immigration officials to deny green cards or visas to people who now rely on or might in the future need government programs including food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies.

Bad Benefits?

Specifically, the Department of Homeland Security can now consider the following benefits in making inadmissibility determinations:

  • Any federal, state, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance;
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF);
  • Federal, state, or local cash benefit programs for income maintenance (often called "General Assistance" in the state context, but which may exist under other names);
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or formerly called "Food Stamps");
  • Section 8 Housing Assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program;
  • Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance (including Moderate Rehabilitation);
  • Public Housing under section 9 the Housing Act of 1937; and
  • Federally funded Medicaid (with certain exclusions).

That means that those seeking immigrant visas, green cards, or lawful permanent resident status could have those requests denied if they received any of the listed benefits for more than 12 months across a three-year period prior to their application.

Self-Sufficiency and Sending Messages

Acting Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli said the Trump administration is looking to ensure immigrants are "self-sufficient" instead of relying on public resources during a press conference this week. But critics, like National Immigration Law Center executive director Marielena Hincapie, see something else at work. "This news is a cruel new step towards weaponizing programs that are intended to help people by making them, instead, a means of separating families and sending immigrants and communities of color one message: you are not welcome here."

There are exceptions to the new public benefits rule, and it will only apply to applications received after October 15, 2019. If you have questions about your immigration status, visa application, or how accepting public benefits may impact them, talk to an experienced immigration attorney today.

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