In October 2018, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed adjusting the definition of “public charge,” which is used to delineate noncitizens who are likely to pose a financial burden in the U.S. by relying heavily on government programs.

The definition is important because such individuals are ineligible for visas or lawful permanent residency.

For example, a person applying for a visa who is deemed a public charge might be turned down based on immigration officials’ view that the person would not be able to support himself or herself while in the United States.

The current definition of public charge relates to a person who has been “committed to the care, custody, management, or support of the public,” according to the proposed rule.1

DHS proposes a new definition, which it says clarifies the current one. A person would be considered a public charge if he or she takes “receipt of financial support from the general public through government funding (i.e., public benefits).”

DHS defines those benefits to include the following programs, in which many legal immigrants are eligible to participate:

  • Medicaid;
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP);
  • Supplemental Security Income;
  • Federal Rental Assistance;
  • Low Income Subsidy for Medicare Part D Prescription Drug Coverage;
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), cash aid only;
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

According to the proposed rule, “Food, shelter, and necessary medical treatment are basic necessities of life. A person who needs the public’s assistance to provide for these basic necessities is not self-sufficient.”

However, DHS makes clear that public charge determinations are based on a “totality of the circumstances.” For example, DHS also would consider the individual’s age (someone younger than 18 or older than 61 who is unemployed or has limited resources would be dinged); the individual’s health status; whether the individual’s assets and resources are less than 125% of the federal poverty level; and “household size in relation to [the] alien’s household assets and resources.”

Further, people who have not met vaccination requirements or who have chronic illnesses, mental disorders, addiction problems, or sexually transmitted diseases could be considered public charges. “An alien’s financial status would also include the alien’s liabilities as evidenced by the alien’s credit report and score,” the proposed rule says.


  1. Department of Homeland Security: Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds. Fed Reg. 83(196):51114-51296.