Last Thursday, USCIS announced that it will be implementing its Final Rule on Public Charge Inadmissibility on February 24, 2020 (except in the state of Illinois, where the rule remains currently enjoined). Under the new regulations, USCIS officers will have expanded authority to determine whether an applicant is likely to become a public charge by evaluating a number of factors including but not limited to an individual’s age, health, family status, assets, resources, financial status, education, and skills. Additionally, a noncitizen who receives a specified public benefit for more than 12 months in the aggregate within any 36-month period will practically be presumed to be someone more likely than not to become a public charge in the future.
With this breaking development, which is likely to significantly affect the vast majority of green card cases after its effective date, there has been some confusion as to how it will be applied to citizenship cases. Fortunately, the final rule pertains to grounds of inadmissibility, which are potentially implicated when an individual applies for adjustment of status or seeks to enter the country from abroad. It does not currently apply to naturalization matters, although it does forecast the direction in which things are moving. So, as of now, receipt of public benefits-ie., welfare, food stamps, cash assistance-does not, in and of itself, disqualify an individual from becoming a citizen. However, this does not mean that public benefits are not relevant to the analysis. In fact, these is a specific question on the N-400 that asks whether the applicant has made any misrepresentation to obtain public benefits. This is a loaded question that potentially goes to good moral character and more importantly, potentially to one’s green card. In other words, if an applicant lied or obtained public benefits through fraud or misrepresentation prior to a grant of permanent residence, this conduct could have possibly affected one’s green card case if disclosed. If it was not disclosed and only discovered at this point now, during the naturalization application process, USCIS may defer the matter for investigation and conceivably institute an action to revoke one’s green card if it is determined that this information could have materially affected the adjudication process.
This is just one illustration of how conduct prior to, as well as after a grant of permanent residence, can affect an application for naturalization. While officers presumably focus on the statutory period, they are not necessarily limited to that time period and can, when warranted, inquire into conduct beyond the five years if relevant. This is why it is especially important to fully explore all previous periods of residence in the US with your attorney and not gloss over any problematic issues just because they are outside the five (or in some cases, three) year statutory period.
The above is general information only. It is not specific legal advice nor intended to create an attorney client relationship. If you need advice, please consult with an attorney.