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What does it mean to be a “public charge”?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an individual seeking admission as an immigrant or seeking to adjust status to lawful permanent resident is inadmissible if he/she is likely to become a public charge. “Public charge” is defined as “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.” Over the years there has been concern that non-citizens who receive certain public benefits may face immigration consequences and be incorrectly labeled a “public charge” as a result of this law. For example, some individuals are eligible for disaster relief programs, treatment against communicable disease immunizations, and child nutrition and health programs. These benefits do not render someone a “public charge” as defined above. In order to ensure that the label of “public charge” is properly used, there are several factors for the immigration service to consider, including age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education and skills. Hopefully by doing a careful analysis of these factors the immigration service will not make erroneous public charge determinations at the expense of admissible and lawful non-citizens.