By: Kathy Kilrain del Rio 

Over the last few years, if you are part of an immigration process or know someone who is, you may have heard  a lot about something called “public charge.” Many people have questions about it, and we’d like to help everyone better understand what it is and who it applies to. 

It is important to know that the expanded public charge rule from the Trump administration has ended. The policy has returned to what it was before President Donald Trump took office. Using most public benefits programs, including health care, food, and housing programs, will not have an impact on an individual’s immigration status. 

Federal immigration law includes a public charge policy that affects some immigrants when they are applying for a green card or before they enter the country. It is meant to determine if someone will need to rely on the government for financial support. The public charge policy has been in place for decades, but the Trump administration significantly expanded the policy in harmful ways. Because of that, many more people learned about the policy, and it created a lot of confusion. 

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s actions caused many immigrants to stop using all public benefit programs or to not apply for needed help out of fear of the policy. That “chill effect” harmed immigrants who were subject to the public charge policy and also harmed immigrants and their U.S. citizen families who are not subject to it. At Maine Equal Justice, we expect the Biden administration to propose a new public charge rule, but that rule would not affect anyone for many months or potentially years, so it should not be a factor in deciding whether to apply for public benefits now. We also do not expect that proposed rule to be harmful in the ways the Trump administration rule was. 

The public charge rule primarily affects family-based immigrants applying for green cards or applying for entry into the U.S. It does not apply to immigrants with a humanitarian status, including asylees, refugees, survivors of trafficking or victims of crimes (U or T visa applicants), Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitioners, or people seeking or granted Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SUS). There is no public charge test when applying for U.S. citizenship, to renew a green card, or to apply for or renew asylum, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). 

Many factors go into a public charge decision. The only public benefits that are considered are federal or state cash assistance, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and General Assistance (GA), and long-term institutional care paid for by the government, such as nursing home care paid for by Medicaid (MaineCare). Other factors will also be considered. These include education, employment, health, and family status. The use of public benefits by other family members does not affect an individual’s public charge decision.