Immigrants and Public Benefits


Public Benefits and Public Charge:

After welfare became workfare during the overhaul of immigration laws in 1996, many immigrant families were confused or afraid of seeking public benefits. Some immigrants and their families believed that receiving public benefits would affect their immigration status later. Some feared that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) would label a family member a “public charge” and subject this person to a deportation hearing. There were stories that immigrants returning to the United States from abroad would have their passports and green cards taken away because they had received public benefits before leaving the United States. Others were concerned that receiving public benefits may hurt one’s chances of sponsoring a relative or becoming a U.S. citizen. In particular, some persons are eligible to adjust their status (apply for a green card) while they remain in the United States while others must wait abroad while their visas are processed. Certain public benefits may affect an adjustment of status or an application for a visa.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What kind of public benefits can I get before I adjust my status to a lawful permanent resident or apply for my green card?

You can get public benefits if they are:

  • non-cash assistance (and not used for long term care), or
  • for a special purpose and
  • you do not rely entirely on it for income (e.g. Social Security or Unemployment Insurance benefits)

Which public benefits can I get without being labeled a public charge by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)?

Here are some of the major benefits (non-cash assistance) you can get:

  • Medicaid(short term care)
  • CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Prog.)
  • Prenatal care
  • Food Stamps
  • WIC (a nutrition program)
  • Emergency medical assistance
  • Emergency disaster relief
  • Transportation vouchers
  • Foster Care/Adoption Assist.
  • Non-cash benefits under TANF

TANF is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a public assistance program, that provides both cash and non-cash benefits.

How can I be sure that using cash benefits now will not affect me later?

If you receive cash assistance from programs such as:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); or
  • General Assistance (state income maintenance programs);

You may have problems getting a green card or adjusting your status to a lawful permanent resident or reentering the United States. Consult an attorney before you leave the United States to travel abroad (especially if you remain outside of the United States for more than six months). Before granting or denying your admission or reentry to the United States, the INS will consider your age, health, income, resources, occupation, employment history, education, skills, family status, assets, and current and past receipt of public cash benefits to determine if you are “likely to become a public charge.”

Who should not worry about receiving any kind of public benefits?

If you are a refugee or you have been granted political asylum, you are entitled to receive public benefits (cash and non-cash assistance). If you are a person who received relief under a law called NACARA or other special government programs that grant public benefits to you (and persons similarly situated), you are entitled to receive public benefits. Sponsors who must file affidavits of support to help family members obtain their visas or green cards can also receive public benefits without affecting their ability to petition for family members or apply for naturalization (citizenship). However, INS will ask for a cosponsor to file an affidavit of support promising to pay back government programs for public benefits lawfully received by the immigrant.


Recently, the INS issued internal guidance to address these concerns and questions. In general, receiving non-cash assistance from programs such as Medicaid does not put an immigrant (or immigrant families) at risk of being a “public charge” and thus subject to deportation. Receiving cash assistance from programs such as SSI, TANF (or state general assistance or local income maintenance programs) may lead to allegations of “public charge” and result in a deportation hearing. So far, there are very few deportations due to being a “public charge” because receiving cash assistance does not automatically result in deportation. If you are worried about becoming a public charge or risking deportation, speak with an immigration attorney. In short, not every immigrant (or immigrant family) who receives public benefits becomes a “public charge” and not every public benefit used will result in deportation.

This information is not a substitute for legal advice. Consult AALDEF or an immigration attorney to assess your individual circumstances.

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