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Supreme Court Decision on Public Charge Rule: What It Means

Authored By: Northwest Justice Project LSC Funded
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Find out here what has changed in the public charge rules. You can also read these for help deciding if, and when, to use the public assistance benefits you or your family members need.


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Main things you should know:

  • The public charge test does not apply to all immigrants.

  • Immigrants who will be applying for green card status inside the U.S. can still use a number of benefits without problems.

  • You can do things to help yourself in the public charge test. These include improving your job skills and increasing your household income if possible.

  • Try to talk to an immigration lawyer with questions or if you think the public charge rule applies to you. See contact info at the end.

On January 27, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision allowing the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") to start using its new public charge rule. This rule covers applications filed with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS") inside the U.S.

The rule changes the public charge test in a number of ways. It changes the definition of "public charge" and expands the types of benefits that immigration officials can consider in the public charge test. It makes it harder for immigrants with limited and moderate incomes to get green card status.

Although the Supreme Court decision lets DHS start using its new rule for now, legal challenges against the rule in other courts will continue.  One of those courts could stop USCIS from using the rule, or part of it, in the future. Here is what you need to know now.

Does the public charge test affect all immigrants?

No. It mainly affects people applying for green card status through the family visa petition process.

Many categories of immigrants are not subject to the public charge test. These include asylees, refugees, self-petitioners under the Violence Against Women Act ("VAWA"), U and T visa holders, and Special Immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan.

When will DHS start using the new rule?

DHS says it will start to use the new rule on all applications and petitions filed on or after February 24, 2020.  

Immigration officials will only consider the following benefits used before February 24, 2020:

  • cash assistance (such as SSI, Aged Blind and Disabled cash, and TANF)

  • long term care (like in a nursing home) paid for by the government

What benefits will immigration officials consider under the new rule?

Under the new rule, immigration officials will consider the following benefits used on or after February 24, 2020:

  • cash assistance

  • non-emergency Medicaid (there are exceptions to this)

  • the federal food stamp program (also called "SNAP")

  • some subsidized housing programs, including section 8 and public housing

Immigration officials will not consider the use of

  • any entirely state or locally funded programs (except for cash assistance), including the state Food Assistance Program

  • many medical programs, including emergency Medicaid, Qualified Health Plans purchased on Healthplanfinder, and Washington Apple Health for children under 21 and pregnant women

Will immigration officials consider benefits used by an immigrant's family members?

No. under the new rule, immigration officials will not consider a family member's use of benefits.  

*The old rule lets immigration officials consider a family member's use of cash assistance if it is the household's only income. Under either the old or the new rule, an immigrant for whom this is true would have a hard time passing the public charge test.

Is the use of benefits the only thing immigration officials consider in the public charge test?

No. They must also look at several other factors. These include the immigrant's:

  • income (money from work or other sources) and assets (things the immigrants owns)

  • health

  • education (schooling) and skills

  • family status (including the number of family members in the home)

  • the affidavit of support filed on the immigrant's behalf

The new rule also requires immigration officials to consider other factors. These include health conditions that will require extensive treatment or make it hard for the immigrant to work, and the immigrant's age.

The new rule favors immigrants with higher household incomes. It disfavors immigrants with household incomes closer to, at, or under the Federal Poverty Level.

*In 2020, the poverty level for a family of four is $26,200.

Does the new rule cover immigrants applying for green card status outside the U.S.?

No. At this time, different rules apply to immigrants who must apply for green card status at a U.S. consulate outside the U.S.  If this describes you, or you are not sure, get legal advice.

Where to get legal advice:

Contact Northwest Justice Project:

Outside King County: Call the CLEAR Hotline at 1-888-201-1014 weekdays from 9:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.

In King County: Call 211 for referral to a legal services provider weekdays from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm.

Persons 60 and Over can call CLEAR*Sr at 1-888-387-7111 (statewide).

Deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired callers can call CLEAR or 211 (or toll-free 1-877-211-9274) using a relay service of your choice.

Apply online with CLEAR*Online - nwjustice.org/get-legal-help.

CLEAR and 211 will provide a free interpreter.

Contact Northwest Immigrant Rights Project:

Seattle Office - serving Island, King, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties: 206.587.4009 or 1-800.445.5771

Tacoma & South Unit (TSU) – serving Clallam, Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Jefferson, Kitsap, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Skagit, Skamania, Thurston, and Wahkiakum counties: 206.816.3893 or TSUintake@nwirp.org

Granger Office - serving Adams, Asotin, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield, Kittitas, Klickitat, Yakima, Walla Walla, and Whitman counties: 509.854.2100 or 888.756.3641

 Wenatchee Office - serving Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant, Lincoln, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane, and Stevens counties: 509.570.0054 or 866.271.2084

Last Review and Update: Feb 20, 2020