Daring to address the underlying issue…
US Immigration law has, and has had for many many years, a requirement that a person is inadmissible if that person “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge.” See INA 212(a)(4) The law provides that “Except as otherwise provided in this Act, aliens who are inadmissible under the following paragraphs are ineligible to receive visas and ineligible to be admitted to the United States”
Way back in the early 1900s admission for immigration or granting of permanent residency was predicated mostly on whether the person seeking admittance would be self sufficient. They didn’t have to be rich, but needed to be able to work to pay their own way in society. So this idea of financial independence is old. Other factors like not having an incurable contagious disease were a more considerable burden for many prospective immigrants.
Fast forward to more recent times and what exactly constitutes being a public charge has become an issue. There is guidance in regulations but not a lot of detail in the law itself. And regulations are much easier to change from one administration to another.
Regulations specify that a totality of circumstances should be taken into account when considering whether someone might be denied admittance or adjustment of status* based on likelihood of becoming a public charge. Age, health status, assets, family status, education and skills, and whether the applicant has an affidavit of support are some of the factors to be considered when make a public charge determination.
And a key factor has been whether the applicant is likely to receive government benefits, and if so what sort of benefits. Regulations specifically discuss whether the applicant is likely “to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.”
So a claim for Social Security after working 50 years? - not going to be a problem. SNAP and TANF from day one - probably will be a problem. SSI Disability - who knows!? Generally cash benefits are the most problematic.
But what about other benefits? Reduced or free lunches for an immigrant kid in elementary school? Subsidies for Section 8 housing? Medicaid covering long term care in a nursing home? What qualifies or how much is too much to be a problem is not clear.
The Obama administration noted this public charge issue as a problem with regard to subsidies for health insurance bought on the federal exchange. Typically an American must earn 125%** of the federal poverty line for the family size in order to file and affidavit of support to sponsor an immigrant. But subsidies are available on the health care exchange for incomes up to 400% of the poverty limit.
So if such subsidies were considered benefits making someone ineligible for immigration admission it would effectively mean that many more applicants would be ineligible. So the Obama administration decided those subsidies don’t count. But future administrations can change that decision by revising the regulations.
And so it seems the Trump administration has decided to make changes to the regulations controlling the public charge issue.
- Naturalization has not been impacted by likelihood of becoming a public charge under prior regulation. So an immigrant with Lawful Permanent Residency (green card) who becomes a quadriplegic in a car crash can still become an American citizen even though he may be much more likely to become dependent on government assistance. At least for now. If the regulations change naturalization may become affected too.
** Lower income and/or financial resource limits apply for military service members sponsoring an immigrant.