Immigrants living in the United States are eligible for unemployment benefits. But as the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus spread across the country, many are reportedly afraid to file for unemployment and other government benefits. Much of this fear stems from the Trump administration’s public charge rule. The public charge rule makes it harder for people of limited means to qualify for a visa or green card. Thankfully, many of these fears are unfounded. However, the climate of fear created by the public charge rule has hampered efforts to respond to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. This put people’s lives at risk.
Do people with Green Cards need to worry about using government services due to the coronavirus?
No. The current public charge rule applies to people already in the United States who are seeking to obtain a Green Card, as well as those in another country seeking a visa to come to the U.S. The new rule also requires those seeking to extend or change their nonimmigrant status to submit information on public benefits use. But it does not apply the full public charge test to those individuals.
This means that lawful permanent residents—those who already have green cards—do not need to worry about triggering the harsh effects of the public charge rule by using government services during the coronavirus.
Does filing for unemployment put someone at risk under public charge?
No. When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published the public charge rule, it made clear that receiving unemployment benefits is not considered to be receiving a “public benefit.” This is because unemployment is an “earned benefit” that workers pay into with their paychecks. This includes Medicare and Social Security.
Not every immigrant laid off due to COVID-19 will be eligible for unemployment. People seeking to file for unemployment generally must be legally authorized to work. Some states extend unemployment benefits to individuals with DACA, while others do not.
Does receiving government support for a coronavirus test put someone at risk under public charge?
No. Guidance posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website says that “USCIS will neither consider testing, treatment, nor preventative care (including vaccines, if a vaccine becomes available) related to COVID-19 as part of a public charge inadmissibility determination.” This is true even if someone pays for the treatment through a benefit which would normally count against them. Again, this includes Medicaid.
The rule itself also exempts the use of Medicaid benefits for treatment of an “emergency medical condition.” Immigrants should not worry about using emergency Medicaid if they become sick with the virus and need treatment.
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.
How has the public charge rule affected the response to the coronavirus?
When the rule was published, DHS admitted that many eligible immigrants would become afraid to use health benefits out of fear that it might affect their immigration status.
The agency even declared that one likely outcome of the rule was “increased prevalence of communicable diseases” and “worse health outcomes.”
Now is not a time for anyone in American to be afraid to go to a hospital or use vital benefits. Everyone needs resources to stay healthy and help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
That’s why USCIS should take this moment to suspend the public charge rule. The agency should not move forward with a misguided and dangerous wealth test during a pandemic. It should be suspended until the crisis is over.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick is a Policy Analyst at the American Immigration Council, where he works primarily on immigration court issues and the intersection of immigration law and policy. He previously worked as a Staff Attorney at the Council, working on impact litigation, Freedom of Information Act litigations, and practice advisories. Prior to joining the Council, he was an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow placed as a Staff Attorney at the Immigration Law Unit of The Legal Aid Society in New York City, representing immigrants placed in removal proceedings because of a prior criminal conviction. Aaron holds a J.D. from the Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in Politics and East Asian Studies from Brandeis University.