COVID-19 and Public Benefits for Foreign Nationals
Many foreign nationals in the U.S. feel reluctant to pursue public benefits or other government assistance due to the public charge rule. This is an immigration bar that makes foreign nationals inadmissible to the U.S. if they are likely to need government benefits. In other words, a foreign national who plans to eventually pursue a green card or another visa will want to avoid becoming a public charge, since this could result in the denial of a future application. Common examples of benefits programs that may trigger the public charge rule include Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), public housing, and Section 8 assistance.
Benefits related to medical treatment for COVID-19 symptoms do not trigger the public charge rule. Unemployment benefits also do not trigger the public charge rule. Therefore, a foreign national who has work authorization in the U.S. potentially could apply for unemployment benefits if they lose their job.
Unemployment Benefits for Foreign Nationals with Non-Immigrant Visas
Each state administers its own unemployment benefits program according to its own rules. Generally, though, a claimant must be both actively looking for a job and available for a job. Eligibility for foreign nationals thus hinges on whether a claimant holds work authorization during their employment, when applying for benefits, and throughout the period of receiving benefits. If a foreign national with a non-immigrant visa meets these criteria, they would be eligible in most states. (Illinois and a few other states limit unemployment benefits to U.S. citizens and green card holders.)
H-1B visa holders, L-1 visa holders, and other foreign nationals whose status depends on their job would not be eligible for unemployment benefits because they would have lost their status. Instead, they would need to change their status or find a new employer to sponsor them if they want to remain in the U.S. On the other hand, H-4 visa holders who are dependent on H-1B visa holders can collect unemployment benefits because their work authorization hinges on their relationship to the H-1B visa holder rather than their job. A foreign national who has already applied to adjust their status to lawful permanent residence also may be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Eligibility for Coronavirus Stimulus Checks
Under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the federal government provided stimulus checks to qualifying individuals. Since stimulus checks are considered tax credits, they do not trigger the public charge rule. These payments amounted to a maximum of $1,200 for each individual or $2,400 for each married couple, plus a bonus of $500 for each child 16 or younger.
Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (CAA), a second round of stimulus payments was distributed to eligible individuals. Individuals earning less than $75,000 in 2019 and couples earning less than $150,000 in 2019 are eligible for a payment of $600 or $1,200, respectively. Individuals with dependent children under 17 years old may receive an additional $600 per child.
In addition to U.S. citizens, green card holders may be eligible for stimulus payments. Other foreign nationals also may be eligible if they meet the substantial presence test. This means that the foreign national has been present in the U.S. for at least 31 days during the current year, and for at least 183 total days over the past three years. Foreign nationals with student visas are categorically prevented from meeting the substantial presence test, as are certain teachers, trainees, athletes, and members of foreign governments.
In addition to meeting these requirements, a foreign national must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN) and must not be a dependent on another person’s tax return. If a foreign national has a Social Security card that says “authorized to work with DHS authorization only,” this is considered a valid SSN. However, if a foreign national files taxes with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) instead of an SSN, they will not be eligible. If a married couple filed taxes jointly, and one spouse uses an ITIN, neither spouse could receive a CARES Act check. (This was true even if the spouse with the SSN is a U.S. citizen.) If an individual or couple claimed a dependent with an ITIN, they would be barred as well. An exception covered couples in which one spouse was a member of the U.S. armed forces at any time during the tax year.
The CAA, however, allows a taxpayer with a valid SSN to receive a stimulus payment even if they filed joint taxes with an ITIN filer (although only the SSN holder will receive a payment). The CAA also provides a retroactive CARES Act payment to these families, and joint filers may be eligible for a CARES Act rebate on their 2020 tax returns. Child dependents with SSNs remain ineligible unless at least one taxpayer claiming them has a valid SSN.