The New USCIS “Public Charge” Rule Explained
Public charge Rule
Under the new “public charge” rule, most would-be immigrants now face significant additional scrutiny of their personal finances and ability to support themselves. One key change under the rule is that starting Feb. 24, anyone using the Adjustment of Status process to apply for a green card from within the United States must file Form I-944 (officially called the “Declaration of Self-Sufficiency”) along with their regular application package.
Form I-944 is used to collect details about you, including your age, health, and financial status. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials will use that information to determine whether you can support yourself, and whether you’re likely to become a “public charge” (someone who uses government-funded benefits) in the future. If officials decide you’re likely to become a public charge, they could deny your green card application. That means that it’s vital to complete the I-944 accurately, and to provide all the information and evidence that’s required.
Form I-944 is used by USCIS to decide whether an immigrant is likely to be able to support themselves and their household without relying on public benefits. The ultimate goal is to determine whether an immigrant is more likely than not to need to use public benefits for more than 12 months within any 36-month period. This test is applied “in aggregate,” meaning that using 2 separate benefits simultaneously for 6 months, or 4 separate benefits for 3 months, would count as 12 months of total benefit use.
The public charge decision is made based on the “totality of circumstances,” which means that USCIS officials will weigh all positive and negative factors against one another before reaching a decision. The decision isn’t just made based on your income or financial resources, but also includes factors like your employability, your age, and your health.
Some factors are “heavily weighted,” or seen as more important, while others are considered “regular,” or less important, factors. Unfortunately, there’s still some uncertainty around how USCIS will weigh an applicant’s positive and negative factors against one another. That means it’s important to make sure you complete Form I-944 accurately and completely, and don’t forget to include any details that could tip the balance in your favor.
Under the new public charge rule, virtually all green card applicants who use the Adjustment of Status process to apply from within the United States must now submit Form I-944 along with their I-485 green card application. If you’re applying from outside the United States using consular processing, you’ll follow a slightly different process. You’ll still be assessed under the public charge rule, but consular officials will assess your financial situation based on the information you provide in your application and interview, so there’s no need for Form I-944.
Form I-944 is quite long, and requires detailed information about you and the other members of your household. As you fill out Form I-944, it’s important to understand the way that the information you provide will be used, and to keep track of the documentation that you must provide to support each section of the form.
Part 1: Information About You
This section is mostly straightforward. It asks for basic personal information, such as your name, parents’ names, birth date, and gender.
Other questions that may not be as obvious:
Alien Registration Number (or “A-Number”): This is the number that you’re assigned when you begin your immigration process.
USCIS Online Account Number: This is different from your A-Number, but don’t worry about it if you don’t have one. If you do, log in to your account and find your account number on your profile page.
In Care Of Name: If someone other than you accepts mail on your behalf, include their name here.
Date of Birth: When entering dates, use standard U.S. format: mm/dd/yyyy (month, followed by day, followed by year).
Part 2: Family Status (Your Household)
In this section, you’ll list all the people who are members of your household. If you’re applying as an adult, you’ll need to include:
- Your spouse (but only if they live with you)
- Any unmarried children aged 21 or less (but only if they live with you or you financially support them)
- Anyone else you list as a dependent on your tax returns, or to whom you provide significant financial support
- Anyone who lists you as a dependent on their tax returns, or from whom you receive significant financial support.
Applicants who are children must provide a similar list with details about themselves and their parents or guardians, and also any other members of their parents’ or guardians’ household. For each person you list, you’ll need to provide a full name and date of birth, plus some basic information about their immigration status, including their A-number, if they have one. You’ll also need to indicate whether each household member is applying for immigration benefits (such as a green card) as part of your own application.
Part 3: Your and Your Household Members’ Assets, Resources, and Financial Status
This is the longest and most important part of the form. It’s where you’ll provide a snapshot of your household’s financial situation, based on each member’s income and assets as well as your debts and other obligations. The first few items focus on your household income and assets. You’re expected to show that your household has an income that’s at least 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (or 100% if you’re a servicemember on active duty). The precise amount of income that you’ll need depends on your location and the size of your household.
If your income is less than 125% of the poverty guidelines, you’ll need to show you have sufficient assets to make up the difference. Most applicants will need assets worth at least 5 times the difference between their income and 125% of the poverty guidelines. (The required assets are a bit lower for servicemembers or for orphans being brought to the United States for adoption).
For example, if you live in the lower 48 states and have 5 people including yourself in your household, the federal poverty guideline is $30,170. If you have an annual household income that’s at least 125% of that amount (i.e. $37,712.50 or greater) then your income is considered sufficient.
If you only earn $25,000, however, you would need to show that your household has assets worth at least 5 times the difference between $25,000 and $37,712.50. The difference between $25,000 and $37,712.50 is $12,712.50, so you would need to have assets of at least $63,562.50 in order to qualify.
Failure to have sufficient income or assets is considered a regular negative factor. Having sufficient income and assets is a regular positive factor, and having total household income or assets of at least 250% of the federal positive guidelines is a heavily positive factor. Having work authorization and a job with an annual income of 250% of the federal positive guidelines is also considered a heavily positive factor.
For each household member, including yourself, you’ll start by providing income information from a federal tax return. If you didn’t file a tax return, or weren’t required to, you’ll need to explain why.
You’ll use your “annual gross income” for this section, which is the total of all your earnings (including tips, business or investment income, etc.) before taxes are deducted. You can find this amount on line 7 of your Form 1040 tax return or line 1 of your Form 1040-EZ tax return.
If you or your household members didn’t file a U.S. tax return in the current tax year, you can also use data from the previous year’s return or from a foreign tax return. If you weren’t required to file a tax return during the 3 previous years, you can also use the income figure reported on Item 1 of your Form W-2 earnings statement, or the annual income figure listed in your Social Security Statement.
Items 2, 3, 4, and 5
You’ll need to indicate whether any of the income you’ve listed came from criminal activities or from public benefits payments. Any amount listed as coming from public sources or illegal activity will be deducted from your total household income for the purposes of making a public charge determination.
See items 16-25 below for more details on how your receipt of public benefits could affect your green card application.
Item 6, 7, and 8
If you have any additional income not included on your tax returns and not listed in Item 1, you can include it here. This might include child support payments, or parental support if you’re a minor. You’ll need to include documentary evidence to prove that you receive additional income.
In this section, you’ll list your household’s assets and resources —in other words, not the money you earn each year, but the value of the savings, property, and other things that you own. You are only allowed to include assets that you could sell (or liquidate and turn into cash) within 12 months. That might include:
- Bank accounts
- Retirement savings
- Other stocks or investments
- Houses and real estate, minus the value of any outstanding mortgages or loans
- Cars, but only if you have an additional vehicle that you don’t list as an asset
All foreign assets must have their value listed in U.S. dollars. You’ll need to provide documentary evidence, such as bank statements (for a period of at least 12 months prior to the application date) or copies of property deeds, for each asset that you list. You’ll also need to provide copies of any loans or mortgages still outstanding on the listed assets.
Next, you’ll need to list your liabilities and debts. This might include auto loans, credit card balances, mortgages, outstanding child support payments or tax bills, or any other debts that you owe to other people or institutions. Again, enter all amounts in U.S. dollars, and include documentary evidence such as account statements for each item that you list.
Having no debts or liabilities is a regular positive factor, while having debts or liabilities is a regular negative factor.
Item 11, 12, and 13
In this section, you’ll provide details about your credit record and your credit score. You’ll only need to include one copy from a single agency with your I-944.
If you’re a recent arrival in the United States, or haven’t used credit cards or taken on financial obligations, you might not have a credit report or a credit score. If that’s the case, you can provide other information – such as a dossier of bills you’ve paid on time – to demonstrate your financial responsibility.
If you have any negative items on your credit report, such as delinquent debts or unpaid bills, then you can include a written statement explaining what happened. You can also request that the credit agency corrects any errors, and include copies of your correspondence with the agency as part of your application.
Having a good credit report and mid-to-high credit score is a regular positive factor, and having bad credit is a regular negative factor.
Here, you’ll indicate whether you’ve ever declared bankruptcy. If you have, you’ll need to provide basic details, and evidence that the bankruptcy has since been resolved. USCIS hasn’t yet indicated how past bankruptcies will be weighted.
In this section, you’ll indicate whether you have health insurance. If you do, you’ll need to provide additional information, including the amount of your premium and whether you received any Affordable Care Act subsidies to help you pay for your coverage.
You’ll also need to include documentation, such as a copy of your policy or a letter from your insurer. Note that a health insurance card is only sufficient if it clearly shows the start and end dates for your coverage.
If you don’t currently have health insurance, you’ll need to either provide evidence that you’ve enrolled in coverage that’s yet to take effect, or indicate how you plan to pay for any healthcare treatment you might need.
USCIS will review your health insurance coverage together with the results of your medical examination (Form I-693 or Form DS-2053) in order to determine whether you’ll be able to pay for any treatment you might require. You can provide supplementary information, such as a letter from a medical specialist speaking to your prognosis, or details of additional assets or means of support that will help you pay any medical bills.
Having private, unsubsidized health insurance is a heavily positive factor. The lack of such insurance is generally a regular negative factor, but the lack of any insurance could become a heavily negative factor if you have ongoing health issues that could require costly treatment.
In these sections, you’ll indicate whether you’ve ever received any public benefits. If you’ve used any public benefits, you’ll need to list the agency that granted the benefit, the dates during which you received the benefit, and the amount of the benefit that you received.
Only 9 benefit programs will be considered for the purposes of the public charge rule. An applicant’s past use or likely future use of any listed benefits for more than 12 months in aggregate over a 36-month period would lead to a denial on public charge grounds.
The first 4 are cash benefits that were already considered under existing rules. The past use of one of these benefits is considered a regular negative factor, even if it doesn’t reach the 12-month limit that would automatically trigger a denial:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF)
- State or local general relief or general assistance
- Institutionalization for long-term care
The remaining 5 benefits were not previously considered for public charge decisions. While you should still list any past use of these benefits, only use after thee public charge rule goes into effect, will count towards the 12-month aggregate limit:
- Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps)
- Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program
- Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance
- Public Housing
Some kinds of benefits are exempt from the public charge rule. The use of benefits by people under 21 years of age, or by pregnant women and new mothers, isn’t considered a negative factor. Servicemembers and military spouses are also exempt, as are people who receive Medicaid in connection with a medical emergency or a qualifying disability.
If you’ve used benefits, or if you’re claiming an exemption from the public charge rule, you’ll need to provide full documentation to support your application. Check the Form I-944 instructions for details.
Finally, you’ll need to indicate whether you’ve ever had fees waived for USCIS forms. Most such waivers are based on low income or other financial hardship; if that applies to you, you’ll have to explain in writing why you received a waiver, and whether your situation has since changed.
Receipt of a fee waiver is considered a regular negative factor. That shouldn’t be a problem for most applicants, though, since there are no fee waivers currently available to green card applicants that fall under the public charge rule.
Part 4: Your Education and Skills
Next, you’ll need to tell USCIS about your education, your skills, and your employment prospects.
If you’re applying for an employment green card and have an approved Form I-140, simply enter the receipt number from your I-140. Seeking an employment-based green card is a regular positive factor. If you’re applying on any other grounds, you’ll need to provide a list of the high schools and colleges you’ve attended. (If you didn’t graduate high school, indicate the highest grade you attended.) You’ll need to submit diplomas or transcripts as supporting evidence, or an explanation of why they’re unavailable.
You can also list any vocational or occupational certificates or licenses that you’ve received. Again, you’ll either need to submit documentary evidence, or an explanation of why such evidence is unavailable.
You’ll need to submit evidence of your language skills — both English and any other languages you might speak. This could include evidence of language courses you’re currently taking, or certification you’ve acquired in the past. Note that even native speakers must submit evidence of their English proficiency.
Finally, you’ll need to note whether you’re currently retired, and whether you’re the primary caregiver of any children, elderly, or sick people in your household.
Having a high school education, a college education, vocational qualifications, and English or other language skills are all regular positive factors, and the absence of such skills and qualifications are regular negative factors.
Having a work history or being a primary caregiver is a regular positive factor. Lacking an employment history or immediate job prospects is a heavily negative factor, unless you are a caregiver or a student.
Part 5: Declarant’s Statement, Contact Information, Certification, and Signature
You’ll need to sign the form once you’ve completed all the information. Make sure you actually sign the form: simply typing out your name isn’t enough.
Parts 6, 7, and 8
Parts 6 and 7 include information from anyone who helps translate the form for you, or who helps you fill out the form. They’ll fill out these parts of the forms themselves, so you won’t have to worry about them.
You’ll sign the form again in Part 8 when you attend your USCIS interview. Don’t sign this part of the form in advance; wait until you’re instructed to sign it at your interview.
In part 9, you can write in any additional information you need to that didn’t fit elsewhere on the form. You can submit multiple extra pages here, but don’t simply submit sheets of regular plain paper – you should make extra copies of Part 9, and use those to fill out any additional information.