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” has been 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 alters the public charge definition. Under the rule, individuals who are 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 legal challenges work their way through the federal courts.