Does receiving public benefits affect my application for permanent residency?

In my Consulta Migratoria® column this week, I answer a question from a reader who wants to apply for public benefits for his U.S. citizen daughters.

Each case is different and the answers vary depending on each person's immigration history.

Here I provide general answers to your questions. Please consult with an immigration attorney to receive personalized legal advice before starting any procedure.

This is the column:

I am applying for permanent residency through the U visa. I have two American girls ages 6 and 9. My hours at work have been reduced and I need to apply for food stamps and health insurance for my daughters. My family and friends tell me not to do this because it will affect my immigration process. Is this true? Adrian R.

Adrian, applying for food stamps and health insurance for your U.S. children should not affect your application for permanent residency through U nonimmigrant status, known as the U visa.

But it is true that there are circumstances under which receiving public assistance may affect certain applications for permanent residency or U.S. citizenship.

However, public benefits granted to U.S. citizen children generally do not prejudice the immigration applications of their parents or other relatives.

The U.S. government stipulates that certain immigrants who wish to obtain permanent residency cannot be a "public charge". That means they must not apply for certain public benefits. If they do, it could cause an immigrant to be ineligible for immigration benefits.

The no public charge requirement does not apply to certain immigrants applying for permanent residence, such as refugees and asylees or persons on T and U visas.

Adrian, I recommend that you speak with a representative from the welfare office to determine if your U.S. citizen daughters are eligible for food stamps and health insurance.

Be sure to provide all financial information requested, including your assets and income, and never lie when applying for this service. Obtaining them through fraud is severely punishable by law and will affect your immigration process.

What it means to be a public charge

If a person is unable to support themselves financially and relies on public benefits that provide cash or certain medical assistance, then they may be considered a "public charge," according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

These are some public benefits that could consider a person as a public charge:

  1. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly known as welfare.
  2. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which pays benefits to disabled adults and children who have low incomes and limited resources.
  3. State or local grant programs.
  4. Medi-Cal/Medicaid benefits used for long-term institutionalization of aliens, such as a nursing home or mental health facility.

Other factors taken into account are age, health, income, family situation, education and skills of the person.

Public benefits that do not affect immigration procedures

Receiving them does not automatically make you a public charge. A USCIS officer must evaluate each case in context of the circumstances before determining whether an immigrant is a public charge.

According to USCIS, an alien is generally not considered a public charge if he or she uses the following public benefits:

  1. Medicaid/Medi-Cal and other health services (including public assistance for immunizations, screenings and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases); the use of health clinics and short-term rehabilitation services; and emergency medical services.
  2. Children's Health Insurance (CHIP)
  3. Nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly known as food stamps or "food stamps," the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program, and other food assistance programs, both supplemental and emergency.
  4. Housing benefits
  5. Child care services
  6. Energy assistance, such as Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  7. Emergency disaster relief
  8. Foster care and adoption assistance
  9. Educational assistance (such as public school), including benefits under the Head Start Act and aid for elementary, secondary, or higher education.
  10. Job training programs
  11. In-kind assistance (in-kind); programs, services or community assistance (such as soup kitchens, counseling and crisis intervention, and short-term shelters).

Cash benefits to which an individual contributed through employment, such as Social Security, government pensions, veterans' benefits, and unemployment compensation no count against its admissibility.

Warning for permanent residents

If you are a permanent resident receiving public assistance, do not travel out of the country for more than 6 months. If you stay out longer than that, USCIS may question you when you return to determine if you may become a public charge and deny you entry.

Before traveling outside the United States, you should consult with a representative of the social services office to determine if you can continue to receive assistance while you are out of the country.

Receiving public assistance should not affect your application for citizenship unless you obtained the benefits improperly. In that case, the USCIS may determine that you are not of good moral character for obtaining this service to which you were not entitled and deny your application.

Always consult with an immigration attorney before applying for any immigration or public benefit.