Sponsoring Immigrants and Public Benefits

Sponsoring Immigrants and Public Benefits
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Last updated: August 2005

What is a sponsor?

All immigrants must prove to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that they will not depend on the United States government for help with money. In other words, an immigrant must prove that he or she will not become a "public charge." Being a public charge means that you are someone who is likely to need cash welfare or  long-term health care. Click on the title below to learn more about who is a public charge.

What is a Public Charge?

One way to show that you will not become a public charge is to have someone in the United States be your financial sponsor.  This person, the sponsor, signs an "affidavit of support" for you.

Your sponsor must be a U.S. citizen, national, or lawful permanent resident.  A sponsor must be 18 years old or older.  A sponsor must live in the United States. If someone in your family filed a visa petition for you, that person must be your sponsor.

What is an Affidavit of Support?

An affidavit of support is the sponsor's promise that he or she will give you money or financial support if you need it.  The affidavit of support shows that you will not need help from the government to have enough money for living expenses or for long-term health care because if you have those needs, your sponsor will help you.    

Are Affidavits of Support enforceable?

USCIS Form I-864, the affidavit of support form, is enforceable. Signing this form is a binding contract. This means that if a sponsor signs an affidavit of support and does not provide support for the sponsored immigrant, the sponsor can be sued by any agency that provides benefits to the immigrant. The immigrant can also sue his sponsor if the sponsor does not give him financial help.

Which immigrants must use an enforceable Affidavit of Support?

All family-based immigrants, including immediate relatives, family preference immigrants and orphans must have affidavits of support. This rule applies if these immigrants file adjustment of status or immigrant visa applications on or after December 19, 1997. 

Employment-based immigrants who come to the United States to work for relatives or for companies where their relatives own at least 5% of the company must also have sponsors.

Which immigrants do not need to use an Affidavit of Support?

Refugees and asylees applying for a green card do not need sponsors. Also, immigrants applying for a green card through registry, the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act, and the Cuban Adjustment Act do not need sponsors. 

Immigrants with credit for 40 quarters of work history in the United States do not need to file enforceable affidavits of support.

Are there income requirements for sponsors who sign the enforceable Affidavits of Support?

Yes. A sponsor's income must be at least 125% of the federal poverty level for his family and the immigrant he is sponsoring. If a sponsor's income does not meet this requirement, he can show that his assets, such as his house, car, or bank account are worth enough to meet the requirement. If the sponsor cannot meet the income requirement, he can co-sign the affidavit of support with another person who does qualify and who is willing to accept liability for the support of the immigrant.

You can use USCIS Form I-864P to determine if you meet the income requirements to sponsor an immigrant.

Can an immigrant whose sponsor signed an enforceable Affidavit of Support get public benefits?

An immigrant whose sponsor signed an affidavit of support can get some public benefits. Not all benefits are considered when USCIS decides if an immigrant is going to become a public charge. USCIS focuses on whether the immigrant will need cash benefits for income or long-term health care at the government's expense to determine if an immigrant will become a public charge. 

Benefits that are not considered for public charge purposes are:

  • Medicaid and some health insurance and health services (including immunizations, treatment of communicable diseases, and use of health clinics)
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Nutrition programs
  • Housing assistance
  • Child care services
  • Energy assistance, such as Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
  • Emergency disaster relief
  • Foster care and adoption assistance
  • Educational assistance
  • Job training programs
  • Communuty-based programs (such as soup kitchens, shelters, and crisis counseling and intervention)

Please note that not all categories of immigrants can get all of these types of benefits. Also, immigrants who have been in the United States for less than 5 years are generally not eligible for food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Does the sponsor's income matter when the immigrant applies for public benefits?

Sometimes. An agency will look at the income and resources of the sponsor that the sponsored immigrant can use to determine if the immigrant can get benefits. A sponsor's income is usually only considered for benefits like food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). When a sponsor's income is considered, the immigrant might not be eligible for public benefits because adding the sponsor's income makes the immigrant "over income" for certain benefits.

But, there are exceptions to this rule. If a public aid agency determines that an immigrant is a domestic violence survivor, or would not be able to get food and shelter without assistance, only the income that the sponsor actually gives to the immigrant will be considered. Immigrants can also get emergency Medicaid without counting their sponsor's income.

Does the sponsor have to repay public benefits used by the sponsored immigrant?

A sponsor who has signed the enforceable Affidavit of Support Form I-864 must pay the government back for any "means-tested" benefits that the immigrant used. The sponsor pays the government back after the immigrant becomes a lawful permanent resident.

A "means tested" benefit is a benefit that is funded by the state or federal government and has been determined to be a "means tested" benefit by the government that funds it.

If a person sponsors 2 or more immigrants, his responsibility is divided equally between the immigrants who are applying for public benefits.

Which public benefits does the sponsor have to pay back?

Federal benefits that must be repaid are: Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps, TANF, non-emergency Medicaid, and SCHIP.

If you are concerned about having to repay a benefit, call the agency providing the benefit before you apply to find out if it is considered a "means tested" benefit. In Illinois, you can get information about each public benefits agency by calling the Department of Human Services Help Line at 1-800-843-6145.

Do sponsors who sign enforceable Affidavits of Support have to repay every public benefit?

Sponsors do not have to repay the cost of emergency Medicaid or medical care, immunizations, or testing and treatment of diseases.  Sponsors do not have to repay benefits under the following:

  • short-term non-cash emergency aid
  • school breakfasts or lunches provided by the School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts
  • Head Start program
  • Student Financial Aid
  • Job Training Partnership Act program

Sponsors do not have to repay benefits that are not based on income or benefits from programs that have not been named "means tested" programs. Sponsors who are using food stamps do not have to repay the cost of food stamps used by the sponsored immigrant.

Is the sponsor responsible for benefits used by the immigrant's U.S. citizen children?

No. The sponsor does not have to repay benefits used by the sponsored immigrant's citizen child. The sponsor does not have to pay back benefits used by any other family members of the sponsored immigrant who he did not sponsor.

When does the sponsor's responsibility begin?

Responsibility begins when the immigrant becomes a lawful permanent resident.

When does the sponsor's responsibility end?

A sponsor's responsibility ends when:

  • the immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen
  • the immigrant receives credit for 40 quarters (about 10 years) of work history in the United States
  • the immigrant leaves the U.S. with no intention to return
  • the sponsor or sponsored immigrant die
  • the sponsored immigrant gets a new sponsor

Where can I find more information on Affidavits of Support, sponsorship, and public charge?

For information on a range of immigration topics in both English and Spanish, including immigrant workers' rights fact sheets and publications describing laws affecting immigrants in Illinois, visit  the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

The USCIS website contains a lot of helpful information about Affidavits of Support and Sponsoring Immigrants.  

The State Department also has general information and frequently asked questions about sponsoring immigrants.

To talk to someone about public benefits and Affidavits of Support, call the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights at: (312) 332-7360.

To apply for public benefits or to get more information, call the Illinois Department of Human Services Help Line at: 1-800-843-6154.

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