Public Benefits & Legal Eligibility for U.S. Citizenship
Becoming a U.S. citizen involves meeting several naturalization requirements. Some of them are technical, such as the residency requirement, while others are more subjective. One of the key requirements is providing proof of good moral character. Foreign nationals who are applying for citizenship often fear that receiving public benefits may undermine their proof of good moral character. However, this concern is unfounded. Unless the foreign national illegally received the public benefits, receiving them will not affect their eligibility for citizenship.
This contrasts with the process of applying for a green card, in which receiving public benefits can pose a problem. The key difference between applying for a green card and applying for citizenship is that the foreign national must prove their admissibility to the U.S. to get a green card, but they do not need to prove admissibility to get citizenship. One of the criteria for admissibility is that the foreign national must be able to support themselves or receive support from others so that they do not rely on public benefits for their basic costs of living. (This is known as being a public charge.) You do not need to show that you will not be a public charge to become a U.S. citizen.
Fraud and Illegal Receipt of Public Benefits
As mentioned above, the only situation in which getting public benefits could cause a problem for a naturalization application is when the foreign national obtained benefits illegally. They also might face difficulties if they failed to pay back a debt to the government that resulted from an overpayment of benefits. This might suggest that they do not have the good moral character required for citizenship.
A foreign national may need to alert any agency providing them with public benefits if they leave the U.S. for 30 or more days to avoid receiving public benefits unlawfully.
In some cases, a foreign national might not even know that they received benefits when they were not entitled to them. They might have unwittingly violated the rule about trips outside the U.S. If you are receiving benefits, you may need to notify the agency providing the benefits when you will be outside the U.S. for 30 days or more so that they stop providing benefits during that period. Many foreign nationals continue receiving benefits during these periods, for which they are ineligible, which means that they need to repay the benefits to the government.
Part of applying for naturalization involves listing your trips outside the U.S. since you gained legal permanent resident status. You also must provide information about the jobs that you have held over the last five years. Sometimes a USCIS officer will notice that a foreign national did not hold a job during a period when they were outside the U.S. for 30 days or more, which means that they might have been receiving public benefits during that time. At the naturalization interview, they may ask the foreign national about whether they received public benefits during the trip. If you believe that this type of issue may arise in your case, you should consider talking to an immigration attorney about whether it will affect your eligibility for U.S. citizenship and how to craft a strategy to address the problem.