Here are key points on COVID-19 and the public charge rule:
1. Will getting tested, treatment or preventative care for COVID-19 impact my client’s immigration application under the public charge rule?
On March 13, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that the agency will not consider “testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19” as part of a public-charge determination, nor as related to the public benefit condition applicable to certain nonimmigrants seeking an extension of stay or change of status, even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits (e.g., federally funded Medicaid). USCIS is encouraging anyone with symptoms that resemble COVID-19 (e.g., fever, cough, shortness of breath) to seek necessary medical treatment or preventive services. USCIS has indicated that such treatment or preventive service “will not negatively affect any alien as part of a future public charge analysis.”
2. Will obtaining unemployment insurance impact my client’s immigration application under the public charge rule?
Unemployment insurance payments are not generally taken into consideration by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for purposes of making a public charge determination. As DHS explained in its final rule on inadmissibility on public charge grounds, “DHS would not consider federal and state retirement, Social Security retirement benefits, Social Security Disability, post secondary education, and unemployment benefits as public benefits under the public charge inadmissibility determination as these are considered to be earned benefits through the person’s employment and specific tax deductions.” In addition, USCIS indicates in Volume 8, Part G, Chapter 10 of the USCIS Policy Manual that unemployment benefits are not considered by USCIS in a public charge inadmissibility determination as unemployment insurance is considered by USCIS as an “earned” benefit. For a non-exhaustive list of other public benefits that USCIS does not consider in the public charge inadmissibility determination, please see Volume 8, Part G, Chapter 10 of the USCIS Policy Manual.
The U.S. Department of State (DOS) has not confirmed whether treatment or care related to COVID-19 will be considered as part of its public charge totality of the circumstances analysis. Moreover, the DOS Interim Final Rule and the Foreign Affairs Manual do not directly address the issue of how unemployment benefits will impact public charge determinations made by consular officers at U.S. consulates overseas. AILA’s DOS Liaison Committee is seeking clarification from DOS regarding how consular officers will factor in unemployment insurance compensation in public charge determinations at U.S. consulates overseas.
3. Could a period of unemployment due to the coronavirus put someone at risk under public charge?
Maybe. The public charge rule operates like a wealth test. Immigrants who are laid off due to the coronavirus could have their diminished financial wellbeing counted against them if they apply for a green card in the future or are forced to rely on public benefits to survive.
However, USCIS has indicated that individuals in that situation should provide additional evidence along with their application for a green card. They can explain that the hardship was due to COVID-19.
The agency says it will “take all such evidence into consideration in the totality of the [immigrant’s] circumstances,” indicating that they will likely provide leeway in that event.