Friday, May 1, 2009

Green Cards: Financial Eligibility Requirements

Our office is seeing an increasing number of people seeking immigration assistance, mostly with applying for family-based green cards. The common dilemma all of them face is the inability to satisfy the financial support qualifications for the U.S. citizen or LPR (lawful permanent resident) sponsor. One of the reasons is the depressed level of wages that prevails in the private sector here, contributed in large part by the CNMI guest worker policy and local minimum wage law, which left a substantial portion of the labor force earning $3.05/hr. for the past decade. (Note: Pres. Bush supplanted CNMI min. wage law by setting 50-cent annual increases beginning in 2007 to eventually reach the federal level of $7.25/hr. The current CNMI min. wage is $4.05/hr. and will increase to $4.55/hr. later this month on May 26.)

Public Charge
U.S. immigration law includes a longstanding policy to prefer immigrants who can contribute productively and meaningfully to society. This policy is embodied in the public charge doctrine. A public charge is someone who has become or is likely to become dependent on the government for basic needs. A public charge can be removed from the U.S., denied entry, or denied a green card. Who is to be considered a public charge has been and continues to be a hotly-debated topic among lawmakers. More details on the public charge policy can be found in a USCIS fact sheet.

125% Rule
The I-864 Affidavit of Support is one of the ways to prove that the green card applicant will not be a public charge. The general rule is that the sponsor must prove income of at least 125% above the mandated poverty line. You can review the current poverty guidelines here. The levels are based on the number of dependents that the sponsor has. I’m not aware of any USCIS guidance on what regional guideline to use, but it would seem reasonable to choose the one that includes Guam.

Income from the sponsor's relatives who live with the sponsor can also be included, but only if they agree to be financially responsible for the alien. The alien’s income can also be counted if 1) the alien is the sponsor’s spouse or another relative living with the sponsor and 2) the alien’s income source will continue after the green card is issued.

Joint Sponsors and Current Assets
If the income is too low, then there are two options: 1) finding a joint sponsor or 2) proving that there are assets available for use in supporting the alien. A joint sponsor can be any U.S. citizen or green card holder over 18 years of age and residing in the U.S. or its territories or possessions (incl. the CNMI). The joint sponsor must independently meet the 125% rule. In other words, you can't add the incomes of the sponsor and joint sponsor together to satisfy the rule. Also, a joint sponsor must be willing to be legally responsible for the alien’s financial welfare until the alien becomes a U.S. citizen or qualifies for Social Security disability insurance.

You can also prove that there are assets available to make up for the difference between the sponsor's income and the poverty guideline. The assets must be something that can be converted into cash within one year without considerable hardship. You can include the alien's assets as well as the assets of a relative household member. The value of the assets must be at least 5 times the difference between the income and applicable poverty guideline. Documentary proof of ownership and value will need to be included with the Affidavit of Support.

The rules regarding financial eligibility can get quite complicated. What I consider the best explanation of the details can be found in the actual Instructions to the Affidavit of Support.

Top image: "Looking Backward," by Joseph Keppler, Jan. 11, 1893, Puck magazine.

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