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Immigration: What is the public charge rule? How is it affected by medical treatment and other needs related to COVID-19?

What is the public charge rule in immigration?

For over 100 years, whenever an immigrant has applied to enter the U.S. or stay in the country permanently, an immigration official has evaluated whether the immigrant is likely to become a “public charge.” Being a “public charge” is defined generally as someone who depends on the government for their basic needs, by either receiving cash assistance for income maintenance, or by being institutionalized for long-term care at the government’s expense.

When deciding whether a person will become a public charge if admitted to the U.S., immigration officials consider many of the person’s circumstances, including his or her age, income, health, education or skills, family situation, and sponsor’s affidavit of support. They can also consider whether a person has been “primarily dependent” on certain benefits in the past, which will be explained in greater detail below.

Does public charge apply to all immigrants?

No. It does not apply to the following groups of people:

  • people who are applying for, or who have already received, U or T visas (usually victims of violence or human trafficking)
  • people who are applying for, or who have already received, VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) status
  • people who are applying for, or who have already received, SIJS (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status)
  • people who are applying for, or who have already received, asylee or refugee status
  • people who are already lawful permanent residents and are applying to be U.S. citizens

What if my U.S. citizen child receives public benefits?

If a US citizen child receives public benefits, but the immigrant parent does not, the child’s receipt of public benefits does NOT negatively affect the parent’s application to enter the U.S. or become a lawful permanent resident. In other words, an immigration official cannot use the child’s receipt of public benefits as a reason to decide that the parent is likely to be a public charge.

Do immigration officials consider all public benefits when deciding whether someone is likely to become a public charge?

No. Many benefits are NOT considered when deciding if an immigrant is a public charge.  Immigration officials are not allowed to consider the following:

  • Receipt of Medicaid, Emergency Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), state and locally-based health care programs (for services other than long-term care), and other health coverage, including subsidies for insurances purchased through and other healthcare exchanges
  • Nutrition programs, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), special Supplemental Nutrition Program for women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school lunch programs, and food banks
  • Subsidized housing programs, such as Section 8 and Public Housing
  • COVID-related supports, such as Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), stimulus payments, child tax credits, emergency rental assistance, and more
  • Other state-based, non-cash-assistance programs
  • Cash benefits based on money earned from work, including Social Security, retirement, pensions, and veterans benefits

An immigration official cannot use an immigrant’s receipt of any of these benefits as a reason to decide that the immigrant is likely to be a public charge.

If I get tested or treated for COVID-19 and it was paid for by Medicaid or another public benefit, does that mean that I will be found to be a public charge?

No. If an immigrant is tested for, receives treatment for, or receives preventative care (such as a vaccine) related to COVID-19, even if the payment for the service is provided by a public benefit such as Medicaid, an immigration official may not use that as a reason to determine that the immigrant is a public charge.

If I receive medical care at a reduced rate, or for no cost, through a local hospital’s financial assistance program (like MetroHealth’s “rating” program), does that mean I will be found to be a public charge?  

No, these kinds of programs are not public benefits and immigration officials cannot use your participation in such a program to determine that you are a public charge.

Where can I get help with health concerns related to COVID 19 for me or my family?   

You can call MetroHealth’s support line at 440-59-COVID (440-592-6843).

If you are concerned about whether you or your child should receive public benefits, we strongly recommend contacting Legal Aid or talking to an immigration attorney before disenrolling from public benefits due to public charge or immigration status concerns. In most cases, using public benefits will not negatively affect an immigrant’s legal status. Updated information and resources in more languages are available here.


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