New Immigration Rules: Public Services May Impact Eligibility for U.S. Residency

On Feb. 24, 2020, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented new rules nationwide that impact immigrants who wish to become permanent or long-term residents. Since the policy change, some benefits that families receive may count against them if they apply for residency.

Called Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds, the new rule prohibits permanent residency if an individual relies on or is likely to rely on public resources for housing, food or healthcare assistance. The changes were implemented in response to a Supreme Court ruling.

Previously, persons may have been eligible for residency if they did not primarily depend on government funds. According to the USCIS, the new rule requires that a potential resident will not depend on government funds at all.  A person applying for residency must demonstrate current and potential income. Non-residents already in the United States may be impacted if they continue to access government resources and wish to stay or make their residency status permanent.

What programs are included?

  • Medicaid for adults over 21 (expectations are made for emergencies, pregnant women, and those who have given birth in the last 60 days)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • General Assistance programs from government agencies that give cash support or income maintenance
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or Food Stamps)
  • Housing Assistance, including public housing, Section 8, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash benefits

Benefits Excluded from Public Charge

  • Emergency medical assistance
  • Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
  • Medicaid for children under 21
  • Disaster relief
  • State, local, or tribal programs (other than cash assistance)
  • Community-based programs, such as soup kitchens, crisis counseling and intervention, and short-term shelter
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) non-cash benefits
  • Supplemental Nutrition for Women Infants and Children (WIC)
  • School Breakfast and Lunch programs
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Transportation vouchers or services
  • Pell Grants and student loans
  • Childcare services
  • Head Start
  • Job training programs

Who is Affected?

Most individuals seeking permanent residency with a Green Card are affected.  Use of public benefits may also damage a non-resident’s attempt to extend temporary residency in the U.S.

Individuals who may be exempt or eligible for a waiver

  • Refugees
  • Asylum applicants
  • Refugees and asylees applying for adjustment to permanent resident status
  • Amerasian Immigrants
  • Individuals granted relief under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), Nicaraguan and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), or Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (HRIFA)
  • Individuals applying for a T or U Visa
  • Individuals with a T or U Visa who are trying to become a permanent resident with a Green Card
  • Applicants for Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
  • Certain applicants under the LIFE Act Provisions

Are there any exceptions?

The USCIS has announced that “inadmissibility based on the public charge ground is determined by the totality of the circumstances.” While use of public charge funds will count against individuals applying for residency, they are not the sole factor in the government’s decision to approve or deny residency requests. Here are additional resources:

American Immigration Lawyers Association: Public Charge Changes at USCIS, DOJ, and DOS

Public Charge Fact Sheet

Reuters: “U.S. Supreme Court lets hardline Trump immigration policy take effect”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Public Charge

 

ABLE: An Account to Overcome the SSI Resource Limit for Adults with Disabilities

Living with a disability can be difficult and costly. Adults who receive benefits from the Social Security Administration because of disability often are challenged to improve their life circumstances because of a $2,000 resource limit. This limit means that a person receiving payments from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program cannot have a bank account balance or any other resources on hand that exceed $2,000, without losing part of their benefit.

Savings of $2,000 or less can be limiting for someone who might want to move into a new home, invest in a vehicle or save for higher education or a vocational training program.

The government provides a way for individuals with disabilities to overcome this barrier and save money. The Stephen Beck Jr. ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Act of 2014 allows individuals to save up to $15,000 annually without losing benefits. ABLE is modeled after college savings plans. The savings and/or investment account bypasses the SSI resource limit and can grow interest tax-free.

There are some restrictions:

  • The account holder must meet criteria for a disability that began before age 26.
  • The account may not receive more than $15,000 per year.
  • If the account balance exceeds $100,000, Social Security benefits are impacted.
  • Most accounts have a total lifetime balance limit of $500,000.

ABLE account money may not be spent on just anything. Generally, the account funds can be used to pay for expenses that may help improve independence or quality of life.

Here are a few examples of qualifying expenses: 

  • Housing
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Personal assistance
  • Assistive technology
  • Health and wellness
  • Employment training and support

Savings in an ABLE account are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). A chosen percentage of funds in the account may also be allocated as uninsured investment money. The account holder can choose a low-, median-, or high-risk investment strategy. Low-risk is the safest, most conservative option, with the lowest possibility for return. A high-risk investment might make more money but also could lose more. A median-risk investment is somewhere in between. Based on the account holder’s choice, the money is automatically allocated into some combination of stocks, bonds, and mutual funds.

An individual considering these options may want to consider how long the money will be in the market and risk tolerance. ABLE does warn that invested money is not insured and that money, including principle, may be lost over the course of an investment period.

Although the program was federally enacted, ABLE is state-run. Washington’s program opened for enrollments in July 2018. So far, enrollments have been low, with the State Department of Commerce reporting that only a few hundred people have opened accounts. Commerce estimates about 30,000-50,000 people in Washington are eligible for the ABLE Savings Plan and have the financial assets to open an account.

The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver recently included an article about the ABLE program and quoted Peter Tassoni, commerce disability workgroup manager: “I had hopes we’d have higher enrollment rates. I thought there would be more of a backlog of people wanting to join the program.”

Forty-one states and the District of Columbia have ABLE Savings Plans. Oregon’s plan was a year and a half ahead of Washington’s, so some Washingtonians signed up early through that option or through the national ABLE For ALL Savings Plan.

Individuals can shop around for the best program to meet their needs, and some states accept clients from all 50 states, including Virginia, Ohio, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Virginia is among a few states that issue a debit card for the account. The ABLE National Resource Center provides a toolkit for reviewing the various state programs to find the best fit.

The account holder, family and friends can deposit funds into the account using post-taxed dollars. Contributions are not federally tax deductible; however, some states may allow for state income-tax deductions for contribution made to an ABLE account.

One way to apply is to type “Open an ABLE account” into a search engine. If you also type the name of the state, you can find links that will take you directly to that program.  Washington’s ABLE Savings Plan links directly to a clickable form to determine eligibility. 

Here are additional resources for more information:

Washington ABLE Savings Plan: WashingtonStateABLE.com, Phone: 1-844-600-2253 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 1-844-888-2253 (TTY) from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Oregon ABLE Savings Plan: OregonABLESavings.com, Phone: 1-844-999-2253 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 1-844-888-2253 (TTY) from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

ABLE For ALL Savings Plan (national plan): AbleForAll.com, Phone: 1-844-394-2253 from noon to 5 p.m. or 1-844-888-2253 (TTY) from noon to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.