Public charge is a term used by U.S. immigration officials to refer to a person who is considered primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense. Where this consideration applies, an immigrant who is found to be “likely . . . to become a public charge” may be denied admission to the U.S. or lawful permanent resident status.
For decades, “public charge” was defined as being primarily dependent on government for monthly cash assistance or long-term institutional care. A rule issued by the Trump Administration in 2019 significantly broadened the public charge definition. Under the rule, individuals determined likely to receive even modest assistance at any point over their lifetimes from a far broader set of benefits, including SNAP, Medicaid, public housing, and rent assistance, would be considered a public charge. Immigration officials would look at many factors to determine the likelihood of benefit receipt, including whether the immigrant’s current family income is above 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The rule took effect February 24, 2020 while under challenge from several lawsuits. In March 2021, the new Biden administration published a rule that essentially revoked the Trump Administration’s public charge rule. In September 2022, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) published a final rule addressing the public charge inadmissibility ground to become effective on December 23, 2022; the 2022 rule was largely similar to the field guidance in effect prior to the Trump Administration that narrowly defines public charge based on dependence on monthly cash assistance or long-term institutional care.