Lawful Permanent Residents: Unemployment Benefits and the Impact on Naturalization

The impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is being felt in every aspect of American society, as we endure shelter in place orders, social distancing guidelines, and closed schools, courts, and businesses. A substantial number of our nation’s workers are already unemployed as a result of this public health crisis, and many more employees will lose their jobs in the months to come. Many Lawful Permanent Resident worry that receiving unemployment benefits will impact their status or their ability to qualify for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.

Which Immigrants Qualify for Unemployment Benefits?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provides $2 trillion in financial assistance, including unemployment insurance and individual rebates. The CARES Act says that anyone seeking to receive a stimulus rebate must include their Social Security Number (SSN) in their tax filing. Lawful Permanent Resident are eligible to apply for a SSN with the Social Security Administration. Other foreign nationals who have employment authorization, such as DACA recipients, may apply for a SSN. However, the CARES Act does not specifically allow an applicant to provide their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a type of identification number often used by foreign nationals who are lawfully present in the United States but who do not have employment authorization. 

Lawful Permanent Residents can qualify for unemployment benefits. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients and Immigrants Permanently Residing Under Color of Law (PRUCOL) (refugees or immigrants who have been granted asylum) can also qualify for unemployment benefits.

Is it a Public Charge Issue for Lawful Permanent Residents to Receive Unemployment Benefits?

On February 24, 2020, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) implemented the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds final rule nationwide, including in Illinois. Under the public charge rule, found at Section 212(a)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), foreign nationals who have received certain forms of Government assistance – like SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), Section 8 housing benefits, federally-funded Medicaid, and others – or who might receive those benefits in the future, as determined by the Government, can be deemed inadmissible as a “public charge.” However, the public charge rule does not include unemployment benefits, such as unemployment insurance and individual rebates. The public charge rule does not apply to Lawful Permanent Residents (except in rare circumstances explained below).

Public charge is a ground of inadmissibility under Section 212 of the INA, and grounds of inadmissibility apply only when a foreign national seeks admission to the United States from abroad or applies for adjustment of status (applies for a Green Card) to become a Lawful Permanent Resident. Although naturalization applicants are still Lawful Permanent Residents at the time of applying for U.S. citizenship, the grounds of inadmissibility, which include public charge, do not apply at the time of naturalization.

Generally, the only time that a Lawful Permanent Resident would need to worry about being considered a “public charge” for purposes of inadmissibility is if the individual traveled abroad for more than 180 consecutive days and was admitted back into the United States. At that point, they are subject to the grounds of inadmissibility and could be placed in removal (deportation) proceedings for reasons related to public charge. According to Section 237(a)(5) of the INA, such Lawful Permanent Residents are deportable as a public charge if (1) they have become a public charge within five years of entry; and (2) the circumstances causing them to become a public charge arose before their entry into the United States. Although most Lawful Permanent Residents will not be placed in removal proceedings and charged as deportable as a public charge, naturalization applicants should avoid absences from the United States of over 180 days to avoid public charge problems, amongst other problems related to extended travel abroad.

Therefore, lawfully receiving unemployment benefits as a Lawful Permanent Resident is generally not a public charge problem, unless the individual travel abroad for more than 180 days, and even then it is rare.

Is it Considered “Bad Moral Character” for Lawful Permanent Residents to Receive Unemployment Benefits?

One of the requirements for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen is that the Lawful Permanent Resident applicant has been a person of “good moral character” for at least five years, or three years if the applicant meets the criteria for marriage to a United States citizen. While the list of reasons that bar an applicant from showing good moral character is extensive, most of them are related to criminal activity and few have to deal with the applicant’s financial status. The only bars to good moral character that are related to an individual’s financial status are for: failure to support dependents (e.g. deserting a minor child, failing to pay child support, failing to pay alimony); bank fraud; failure to file or pay taxes; insurance fraud; and Social Security fraud.

Therefore, lawfully receiving unemployment benefits as a Lawful Permanent Resident is not considered a bar to establishing good moral character for purposes of applying for U.S. citizenship through naturalization. In other words, Lawful Permanent Residents can receive unemployment benefits without jeopardizing their chances of becoming United States citizens, including those who are in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship now.

Please contact an attorney at Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C. if you have any questions about the impact of using unemployment benefits on your immigration case.

The material contained in this alert does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only. An attorney-client relationship is not presumed or intended by receipt or review of this presentation. The information provided should never replace informed counsel when specific immigration-related guidance is needed.

© 2023 Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C. All rights reserved. Information may not be reproduced, displayed, modified, or distributed without the express prior written permission of Minsky, McCormick & Hallagan, P.C.

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