Guide for Local Immigrants and Public Benefits

When is it safe to take advantage of public benefits as an immigrant? Due to several Executive Orders and actions taken by the current administration, many immigrants and their children are nervous about seeking and receiving public benefits that their family needs for fear of deportation or other action. The National Immigration Law Center has many resources on when it is safe to seek public benefits, how best to apply, and what not to worry about. Please see below for our summary of these guidelines, and take advantage of the following links to NILC and Allegheny County resources for more specific information.

Executive Orders and changes made by the current administration have not yet changed the laws and policies concerning immigrants and public benefits. However, there has been talk about drastic changes that have the potential to take shape in the future.

In a leaked Executive Order draft (not yet finalized or signed), restrictions concerning those deemed a “public charge” would make it difficult for low-income immigrants who use certain benefits to enter the country or obtain a green card. Fear of these restrictions would also keep individuals from applying for benefits they desperately need.

  • What is a “public charge”? A public charge is a person who has been deemed a dependent of the state.

  • How is one judged to be a public charge?

    • If you show to have good reason in the future to use public cash benefits as your primary source of income, you could be deemed a public charge.

    • Your past use of public benefits is not taken into consideration, just your potential to rely on them in the future.

  • The public charge statute requires immigration officials to look at all factors that relate to individuals’ ability to support themselves, including their age, health, income, assets, resources, education/skills, family to support, and family who will support them (i.e., whether a sponsor has signed an affidavit of support on their behalf).

    • Since the test looks at the person’s overall circumstances, no one factor is definitive. Any negative factor, such as not having a job, can be overcome by positive factors, such as having completed training for a new profession.

  • Not all immigrants are subject to the public charge determination, however. Please refer to the additional resources provided.

  • The grounds for deporting an immigrant based on public charge are extremely narrow.

    • They would apply only to lawfully residing immigrants who use public benefits during their first five years in the U.S. for reasons that existed before they came to the U.S.

  • People who need benefits based on something that came up after they entered would not have a problem—for example, pregnancy, an accident, or a job loss.

  • Use of programs like Medicaid or CHIP will not affect a public charge decision (unless Medicaid is being used to pay for long-term care), nor will use of noncash programs like SNAP, WIC, or public housing.

  • Use of cash welfare such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) might affect the public charge decision.

  • Use of cash welfare by your children or other family members will not affect a public charge decision.

Please refer to the included fact sheet to see what your specific situation could mean for you concerning public charge, applying for a green card, and information concerning refugees.

So what has changed? And when is it safe to apply for benefits?

  • As stated above, nothing has drastically changed concerning current policies and laws, but current regulations should be followed more strictly

  • The terms of the Privacy Act have remained unchanged, just restated.

    • The Privacy Act ensures that the information of US citizens and lawful permanent residents submitted with public benefit applications will remain private.

  • If you are in need of healthcare or other safety-net benefits, you should continue to apply for and take advantage of them to stay healthy and safe.

    • Disenrolling from these benefits is unlikely to have any effect on your potential to be judged a public charge.

  • Do not misrepresent yourself when applying for public benefits. This can be considered abuse of public benefits.

  • Refer to the included tip/FAQ sheet concerning applying for healthcare via the Affordable Care Act as an immigrant with varying statuses.

This has the potential to change, so for more in-depth and up-to-date information be sure to visit the National Immigration Law Center’s website regularly at

For more specific information, please take advantage of these additional resources: