SNAP & Immigrants: Permanent Block of Public Charge Rule Ensures that Immigrants Can Access SNAP
On March 9, 2021, the 2019 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) public charge rule was permanently blocked nationwide. DHS can no longer consider an individual’s use or potential use of SNAP as a factor in a public charge test. This will provide immediate relief in many hard-hit communities as the public charge regulation effectively denied millions of immigrant families needed help, contributing to rising hunger, poverty, and unmet health care needs, even before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIC) defines “public charge” as an individual who is likely at any time to become “primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, as demonstrated by either the receipt of public cash assistance for income maintenance, or institutionalization for long-term care at government expense.” A public charge test is used by immigration officials to decide whether a person can enter the U.S. or is eligible to receive lawful permanent residence or “LPR” status. When a noncitizen applies for LPR status or for a visa, they are subjected to an assessment of their life circumstances to determine if they are likely to become a public charge in the future.
With the 2019 DHS rule blocked, community organizations can assure immigrants and their families that SNAP will not be used as part of a public charge determination.
DHS announced that it would no longer consider the receipt of SNAP, Medicaid, and public housing benefits as part of a public charge determination. This news came after a decision by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop defending the 2019 public charge regulations and court dismissals of pending appeals by the U.S. Supreme Court and others.
With the invalidation of the 2019 rule, DHS reverted to the 1999 interim field guidance issued by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. This guidance makes it clear that the use of most public benefits programs, such as health, nutrition, and housing programs, will not have an impact on an individual’s immigration status.
DHS only considers benefits received by the person applying for lawful permanent residence status. Benefits used by other family or household members are not considered, unless they are the sole source of income for the family.
As of March 9, 2021, only the following benefits will be considered in a public charge test:
- Monthly cash assistance intended to support a person, including Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and state-based cash assistance programs
- Long-term institutional care at government expense
The public charge decision is based on several different factors. Called the “totality of circumstances” test, an immigration officer looks at the applicant’s age, health, family status, financial status, education and skills, and their affidavit of support (if they have one). The government must look at the person’s whole situation to decide if they are likely to depend on public programs in the future.
The following benefits will not be considered in a public charge test:
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- School meals and other food assistance programs for children including Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT), the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and CACFP afterschool snacks and dinners
- Emergency Food Program assistance through food pantries, soup kitchens or homeless shelters
- Medicaid, Emergency Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), state and locally-based health care programs (for services other than long-term care), and other health coverage
- Subsidized housing programs, such as Section 8 and public housing
- COVID-related supports, such as stimulus payments, child tax credits, emergency rental assistance, and more
- Head Start
- Energy assistance (including HEAP and weatherization projects)
- Disaster relief
2019 public charge rule created fear among immigrants and their families, causing them to avoid vital public benefits that safeguard nutrition, health, housing, and economic security. To help immigrants and their families begin to feel safe accessing nutrition and food programs, community organizations should reach out to local immigrant communities to share this important update. Much work will need to be done to rebuild trust with immigrants and reverse the damage of the 2019 public charge rule. The resources below provide more information and can help guide outreach efforts.
- Joint Letter on Public Charge from FNS/USCIS —updated 5/2022
- National Immigration Law Center’s Protecting Immigrant Families Webpage
- Protecting Immigrant Families The ABCs of Public Charge
- Protecting Immigrant Families Fact Sheet: What Advocates Need to Know
- DHS Letter to Interagency Partners on Public Charge
- Public Benefits Immigrant Eligibility Chart: a tool to help assess an immigrant’s eligibility for public benefits like SNAP. This chart is an ongoing joint project of Empire Justice Center and the NY Immigration Coalition (NYIC).
New Yorkers who have questions about the public charge rule should contact the Office for New Americans hotline at 1-800-566-7636 to receive more information.