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New USCIS Guidelines on “Sponsors of Aliens” are Serious, But May Scare Immigrants Away from Accessing Benefits They are Entitled To

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A recent Presidential Memorandum and new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) guidelines highlight when the sponsors of immigrants could be responsible for reimbursing state and federal agencies if the immigrants they sponsor to access a certain class of public benefits. We will clarify these guidelines below, but first, it is very important to note that many public benefits remain available to sponsored immigrants without any reimbursement responsibility falling on the shoulders of their sponsors. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the reimbursement provisions do NOT apply to, “public benefits specified in section 403(c) of the Welfare Reform Act, such as emergency Medicaid; short-term, non-cash emergency relief; services provided under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts; immunizations and testing and treatment for communicable diseases; and means-tested programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.”

In other words, at a minimum, all lawful permanent residents in the U.S. can access Emergency Medicaid,  programs like free and reduced lunch for kids in school, immunizations and testing and treatment for communicable diseases, and education programs that are available in public schools, like, for example, free English classes.

Following Trump’s Presidential Memorandum on Enforcing the Legal Responsibilities of Sponsors of Aliens, which came out in May 2019, USCIS published new Guidelines for Affidavits of Support that indicate the  responsibilities and penalties that sponsors have if the immigrant they support receives  certain kinds of public benefits from federal, state, local or tribal agencies, especially the following:

Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (PDF)

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program 

Supplemental Security Income

USCIS issued these new guidelines in response to Trump’s Presidential Memorandum, which had scolded federal agencies, saying “currently, agencies are not adequately enforcing these [reimbursement] requirements.  Some agencies have insufficient procedures and guidance for implementing these reimbursements and deeming requirements of the immigration laws. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services has not adequately issued guidance on either sponsor reimbursement or sponsor deeming for the Medicaid program.  Even in cases in which some guidance exists — such as for the Supplemental Security Income, TANF, and SNAP programs — increased oversight and updates to current data collection efforts will ensure more effective compliance.”

How Do You Know if You Are a Sponsor and What Are Your Responsibilities if You Are?

A sponsor is usually the petitioner who filed an immigrant petition on behalf of the intending immigrant. The first responsibility of sponsors is to fill out and submit the documents that primarily demonstrate that they have sufficient financial resources to be an immigrant sponsor. The relevant documents they need to submit include:

Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the INA;

Form I-864EZ, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Act; or

Form I-864A, Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member.

In these documents, sponsors fill their basic information (name, address, household size, etc.) and information about the people to whom they are going to sponsor. Also, they must provide information like employment data, Federal Income Tax Information, and the sponsor’s declaration, certification, and signature.

An affidavit of support is a legally enforceable contract, and the sponsor’s responsibility usually ends when the sponsored individual:

a. Becomes a U.S. citizen

b. Has worked, or can receive credit for, 40 quarters of coverage under the Social Security Act;

c. No longer has lawful permanent resident status and has departed the United States;

d. Is subject to removal;

e. Dies.

The responsibility to repay “means-tested benefits” only applies while the affidavit is enforceable, and would end in any of the events listed above.  

These documents also clearly state that the sponsor could be responsible for repaying each dollar to the agency if the immigrant has accessed  a certain class of what are called “means-tested public benefits.” In this case, if the sponsor does not reimburse this money to the agency that provided the benefits, the new USCIS guidance states that “If you do not reimburse the agency, the agency can obtain a court order for repayment.” To be clear, Trump’s Presidential Memorandum instructs such benefit-granting agencies to seek reimbursement to the extent allowable under law.

What other benefits can lawful legal residents access without making their sponsors responsible for reimbursement?

Trump’s Memorandum did explicitly mention other exceptions: “These deeming and reimbursement requirements are subject to several important statutory exceptions for aliens who have been battered or subjected to extreme cruelty (8 U.S.C. 1631(f)) or who would be unable to obtain food and shelter without the public benefits (8 U.S.C. 1631(e)), for children and pregnant women who are lawfully residing in the United States and receiving medical assistance from a State under the Children’s  Health Insurance Program or Medicaid (42 U.S.C. 1396b(v)(4)), and for aliens receiving SNAP benefits who are members of the sponsor’s household or are under 18 years old (7 U.S.C. 2014(i)(2)(E))”.

Trump’s memorandum and the new guidance is certainly one more way to create uncertainty and fear among immigrants. The language will scare family members living in the U.S. into not supporting their relatives who want to join them in the U.S. because they fear it may cause them problems in the future with the USCIS. Also, whether they are eligible or not, this new language discourages immigrants from accessing vital benefits like health care for themselves and their children, because they worry it would be negative for their residency process.