USCIS Implements a Much Stricter "Poverty" Rule

On February 24, 2020, USCIS imposed a new, much stricter interpretation, of the Public Charge rule. The rule amounts to a “poverty rule” that will deny green cards to many applicants.


The rule makes it easier for the government to deny a green card or visa to immigrants it believes are likely to receive certain public benefits in the future. This would make it significantly harder for immigrants who aren’t already successful to come to the United States. A new Form I-944 must be submitted with most adjustment of status (I-485). For most people from outside the United States applying for an immigrant visa to get their green card, they must submit a similar Form DS-5540.


Under current law, immigrants applying for admission to the United States or those already here and seeking a green card must prove they are not “likely to become a public charge.” Since 1999, this has required immigrants to prove that they will not become “primarily dependent” on certain cash welfare programs.


The new rule adds food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, any government cash assistance, SSI, TANF, any government cash benefit program public housing under Section 9, and Section 8 housing to the list of public benefits that can lead to someone being deemed a public charge. It also removes the requirement that someone become “primarily dependent” on benefits. Instead, the agency can deem someone a public charge if they use any of those benefits for 12 months out of a 36-month period. If someone uses two or more benefits in a single month, each benefit counts separately. This means someone enrolled in both food stamps and Medicaid would be declared a public charge after six months of use instead of 12.


According to the Migration Policy Institute, nearly half of all new immigrants are at risk of visa denial under the new rule. Even spouses of U.S. citizens will have to prove they won’t ever rely on public benefits or be barred from entry. As many as 200,000 immigrant spouses could be at risk of being denied a green card under the new rule. A similar change made last year at the State Department to tighten public charge rules has made it much harder to get an immigrant visa. For example, in the first ten months of fiscal year 2019, a total of 5,343 Mexicans were denied visas on public charge grounds. The State Department only denied seven visas on this ground in the entirety of fiscal year 2016.

Low-income immigrants will be at high risk of being denied entry under the new rule. The rule states that people who earn more than 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines will generally pass the test. But those who earn less than that amount would be forced to prove a negative and will be judged under the following factors:

  1. Age;

  2. Health;

  3. Household size;

  4. Assets, resources, and debts;

  5. Education and skills

  6. Prospective immigration status; and

  7. Whether the person has a sufficient Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)

The new rule doesn’t apply to some individuals who are exempt from public charge rules by law. This includes refugees and other beneficiaries of humanitarian programs such as VAWA and the U-Visa. The rule also exempts benefits used by U.S. citizen children. In addition, benefits used before the rule went into effect will not lead to someone being deemed a public charge automatically.


America has long been a country that provided an opportunity for the tired, the poor, and the hungry to pursue their dreams. This United States was built into a superpower by people who came here with a strong desire to work hard and earn a brighter future. That is the American Dream. This new rule will deny many people the opportunity to achieve this dream and our country will be weaker as a result. 


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