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Immigration Law

COVID-19 Stimulus Package: What CARES Act Rebates Mean for Immigrants

Agustin Martinez, Apr. 5, 2020

"Across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated many lives,[1] including those of immigrants living in the United States.[2]  U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) recently announced that it “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 . . . even if such treatment is provided or paid for by one or more public benefits” as defined by the new public charge rule.[3]  USCIS’s announcement came days after several congressional leaders asked the Trump Administration to rescind the new public charge rule altogether, in light of the rule’s chilling effect on immigrants seeking COVID-19-related medical assistance.[4]

USCIS’s announcement clarified that obtaining COVID-19-related testing and treatment will not factor into a future public charge analysis, even if such testing or treatment is publicly-funded.  But what about the payments that millions of Americans will receive as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the “CARES Act”) that was recently signed into law by President Trump?[5]  Some immigrants, for example, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, are expected to receive CARES Act payments.[6]  Will accepting these federally-funded payments negatively affect these immigrants’ chances of obtaining lawful permanent resident status (i.e., a green card) in the future as a result of the new public charge rule?  Although USCIS has not yet directly answered this question,[7] the answer is “no” based on existing law.  Immigrants who are eligible for CARES Act payments should rest assured that receiving this economic relief will not negatively impact any public charge determination in the future.[8]   

Under American immigration law, a person deemed likely to become a public charge is inadmissible, meaning that the person can be denied a green card, visa, or admission into the country.[9]  The new public charge rule does not change this basic principle.[10]  But it does significantly expand the types of publicly-funded programs that USCIS may take into account when assessing whether a person is likely to become a public charge in the future.[11]  Consequently, the new rule may cause immigrants who are eligible for CARES Act payments to think twice before accepting these publicly-funded payments.

The new public charge rule’s definitions[12] and USCIS’s policy manual[13] help answer whether an immigrant’s acceptance of a CARES Act payment will, in turn, be deemed acceptance of a public benefit as defined by the new rule.  Under this regulatory guidance, CARES Act payments are not public benefits, and therefore, USCIS should not consider acceptance of such payments during future public charge determinations.

The new public charge rule generally defines a public benefit as “[a]ny Federal, State, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance (other than tax credits),” “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP),” “Section 8 Housing Assistance under the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” “Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance,” “Medicaid,” or “Public Housing under section 9 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937.”[14]  At first glance, it would seem that CARES Act payments fall within the “Federal, State, local, or tribal cash assistance for income maintenance” public benefit category.  That, however, would be an incorrect interpretation of the new rule for the simple reason that CARES Act payments are considered tax credits under the Act.[15]  Indeed, Congress specifically referred to these payments as tax credits within the CARES Act’s text.[16]  Thus, since the new public charge rule expressly excludes “tax credits” from its definition of public benefit, a CARES Act payment is not a public benefit as defined by the rule.[17]

USCIS also confirms, in its policy manual, that tax credits are not public benefits under the new rule.[18]  The agency further explains that “[c]ash emergency disaster relief – Stafford Act disaster assistance including financial assistance provided to persons and households under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Individuals and Households Program and any comparable disaster assistance provided by State, local, or tribal governments” does not mean “cash assistance for income maintenance”[19]  This “cash emergency disaster relief” carveout, along with USCIS’s decision to exclude COVID-19-related testing and treatment from future public charge determinations,[20] likely means that the agency will not interpret CARES Act payments as public benefits.

But even if a CARES Act payment was erroneously deemed a public benefit in an individual case, it is highly unlikely that the payment, alone, would result in the recipient being deemed a public charge.  That is because public charge determinations are, by law, forward-looking and based on the totality of the immigrant’s circumstances.[21]  It would be quite surprising—not to mention, inconsistent with both the Immigration and Nationality Act and the CARES Act—for a one-time payment, authorized by Congress to provide assistance in the midst of a global pandemic, to negatively impact a person’s green card eligibility in the future. To remove any chilling effect[22] and alleviate fear in the immigrant population, USCIS should confirm, like it did for COVID-19-related testing and treatment, that CARES Act payments are not public benefits as defined by the new public charge rule.  Even without this additional guidance, however, the law is clear that there should be no public charge repercussions when eligible immigrants receive CARES Act payments.


[1]  See Ed Yong, How the Pandemic Will End, Atlantic (Mar. 25, 2020), https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/03/how-will-coronavirus-end/608719/.

[2]  See Miriam Jordan, ‘We’re Petrified’: Immigrants Afraid to Seek Medical Care for Coronavirus, N.Y. Times (Mar. 18, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/18/us/coronavirus-immigrants.html.

[3]  Public Charge, U.S. Citizenship & Servs. [hereinafter Public Charge] (emphasis added), https://www.uscis.gov/greencard/public-charge (last visited Apr. 4, 2020).  There are actually two new public charge rules.  One, which was promulgated by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), applies to cases adjudicated by USCIS.  Public Charge, Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr. [hereinafter Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr.], https://www.ilrc.org/public-charge (last visited Apr. 4, 2020).  The other, which was promulgated by the Department of State (“DOS”), applies to cases involving individuals who go through a process outside the United States, at a consulate or embassy, to obtain lawful permanent resident status.  Id.  This article refers to a single “new public charge rule,” since both the DHS rule and the DOS rule are virtually identical.  Id.

[4]  Press Release, Torres: As USCIS Ends Public Charge Rule for Coronavirus Cases, Every American is Safer, Congresswoman Norma Torres (Mar. 16, 2020), https://torres.house.gov/media-center/press-releases/torres-uscis-ends-public-charge-rule-coronavirus-cases-every-american

[5]  See Tara Siegel Bernard & Ron Lieber, F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Plan, N.Y. Times (Apr. 3, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-stimulus-package-questions-answers.html.  These cash payments are known by different names, including “economic impact payments,” “recovery rebates,” and “stimulus checks.”  Libby Kane & Tanza Loudenback, Everything We Know About the Coronavirus Stimulus Checks that Will Pay Many Americans Up to $1,200 Each, Bus. Insider (Apr. 3, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance/coronavirus-stimulus-check-questions-answers-2020-4.

[6]  See Understanding the Impact of Key Provisions of COVID-19 Relief Bills on Immigrant Communities, Nat’l Immigration Law Ctr. 12 (Apr. 1, 2020) [hereinafter Understanding the Impact of Key Provisions], https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID19-relief-bills-understanding-key-provisions.pdf?fbclid=IwAR2yiNB-kyhr-33bQTVp7YcdNBZ4LeBbia6JUIzbGOhf6d1jJYY9Rzgjs_c (explaining the eligibility requirements for CARES Act payments, which include having a valid social security number); see also Monique O. Madan, Millions of Immigrant Families Won’t Get Coronavirus Stimulus Checks, Experts Say, Miami Herald (Mar. 26, 2020), https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/immigration/article241531211.html (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders would be able to qualify for the money because they are issued Social Security numbers.”).

[7]  See Public Chargesupra note 3 (explaining USCIS’s position as to COVID-19-related testing and treatment, but not CARES Act payments).

[8]  The question of which immigrants are eligible for CARES Act payments is beyond the scope of this article, but the sources cited supra note 6 provide some guidance on this question.

[9]  See 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(4)(A) (2018) (“Any alien who, in the opinion of the consular officer at the time of application for a visa, or in the opinion of the Attorney General at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge is inadmissible.”); 8 C.F.R. § 212.21(a) (2019) (“Public charge means an alien who receives one or more public benefits, as defined in paragraph (b) of this section, for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months).”); Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr., supra note 3 (“[Immigration] law says that those who are viewed as likely to become dependent on the government in the future as a ‘public charge’ are inadmissible.”).

[10]  See Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr., supra note 3 (providing basic background of public charge law before the new rule was implemented).

[11]  See 8 C.F.R. § 212.21(b) (listing the benefits that are considered “public benefits” for purposes of the new public charge rule); Immigrant Legal Res. Ctr., supra note 3 (“The rules expand the list of publicly-funded programs that immigration officers may consider when deciding whether someone is likely to become a public charge. Under the new rules, federally-funded Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), Section 8 housing assistance and federally subsidized housing will be used as evidence that a green card or visa applicant is inadmissible under the public charge ground.”).

[12]  8 C.F.R. § 212.21.

[13]  Chapter 10 – Public Benefits, U.S. Citizenship and Servs. [hereinafter Chapter 10 – Public Benefits], https://www.uscis.gov/policy-manual/volume-8-part-g-chapter-10 (last visited Apr. 4, 2020).

[14]  8 C.F.R. § 212.21(b)(1)–(6) (emphasis added).

[15]  See Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, H.R. 748, 116th Con. § 2201 (2020) (providing that the Internal Revenue Code will be amended to state that “[i]n the case of an eligible individual, there shall be allowed as a credit against the tax imposed by subtitle A for the first taxable year beginning in 2020 an amount equal to the sum of—(1) $1,200 ($2,400 in the case of eligible individuals filing a joint return), plus (2) an amount equal to the product of $500 multiplied by the number of qualifying children (within the meaning of section 24(c)) of the taxpayer”) (emphasis added); see also Kane & Loudenback, supra note 5 (“The payment . . . is technically an advance tax credit meant to offset your 2020 federal income taxes.”) (emphasis added).

[16]  See H.R. 748 § 2201.

[17]  8 C.F.R. § 212.21(b)(1).

[18]  Chapter 10 – Public Benefitssupra note 13 (“Other benefits not considered public benefits in the public charge inadmissibility determination include, but are not limited to . . . Tax Credits . . . .”) (emphasis added).

[19]  Id. (footnote omitted).

[20]  Public Chargesupra note 3.

[21]  See 8 C.F.R. § 212.22(a) (“The determination of an alien’s likelihood of becoming a public charge at any time in the future must be based on the totality of the alien’s circumstances by weighing all factors that are relevant to whether the alien is more likely than not at any time in the future to receive one or more public benefits, as defined in 8 CFR 212.21(b), for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36–month period (such that, for instance, receipt of two benefits in one month counts as two months).”).

[22]  See Jordan, supra note 2."